Science history: Elizabeth Stern, women’s health pioneer
Canadian researcher conducted crucial studies into cervical cancer and birth control pills. Jeff Glorfeld reports.
Under the headline “One More Pioneering Woman in Science You've Probably Never Heard of”, Scientific American magazine in 2017 said of Elizabeth Stern that she “is probably one of the most significant physician-scientists who worked at the interface of epidemiology and cancer in the mid-20th century ... her groundbreaking research led the way to our modern understanding of the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cervical cancer.”
Stern was born on September 19, 1915 in Cobalt, Ontario, Canada. She earned her medical degree from the University of Toronto in 1939 and the following year went to the United States, where she became a naturalised citizen in 1943.
She went to work at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Public Health in 1963 and expanded her research into cervical cancer, publishing several studies analysing the risk of cervical dysplasia to the development of the disease.
Writing about her on the website of US-based independent, nonprofit biomedical research institution Jackson Laboratory website, Ellen Elliott explains that dysplasia “refers to abnormal cell growth that is non-invasive to surrounding tissues”.
The writer explains that Stern’s aim was to define how cervical cells change during cancer progression, and discover whether dysplasia was a step in this process from normal cell to malignant tumour.
After exhaustive study, Stern “demonstrated that dysplasia is correlated with increased cervical cancer risk. And overall, this indicates that dysplastic cell morphology is linked to cancer development.”
The Scientific American says it is “difficult to overstate how important this discovery was to the medical community, and how innovative her theory was at the time”.
“Today dysplasia is identified during routine cervical cancer screenings using the Pap test, and patients are monitored closely for further progression to carcinoma. The idea that dysplasia could possibly be seen as a debatable risk factor for cancer is preposterous today, largely due to Stern’s meticulous and groundbreaking research.”
Another of her important research projects involved the possible links between birth control pill use and cervical cancer. Her results were published in Science in 1977.
At the end of a seven-year study, Ellen Elliott says, Stern found that women on the Pill had a six-fold increased risk for cervical cancer compared to nonusers, and that the medication was not safe for women.
“By 1979, birth control pill sales were decreased 24% compared to their height of popularity in the mid-1960s,” Elliott says.
“Ultimately these high-dose oestrogen pills were pulled from the market in favour of lower-dose hormone pills, which have fewer side effects and more benefits, including lowered risk of ovarian cancer and pelvic inflammatory disease.”
Stern died in 1980, of stomach cancer.