Elizabeth D. Hay; Scientist Advanced Research on Cells

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Elizabeth D. Hay, 80, a pathbreaking scientist at Harvard Medical School who conducted influential research into cell behavior and the complex material that surrounds and supports the cells in tissues, died Aug. 20 at a hospice in Wayland, Mass. She had cancer.

In 1975, Dr. Hay became the first female chairman of a preclinical department at Harvard Medical School, what is now the cell biology department. She held the chairmanship for 18 years, becoming a mentor to hundreds of junior scientists, and served as the first female president of several professional biology organizations.

Starting in the 1950s, Dr. Hay harnessed new techniques in high-resolution microscopes and radioactive imaging devices to better understand a cell's extracellular matrix, or ECM. Previously, when viewed by light microscopes, this "connective tissue" that surrounds the cell was thought to be an amorphous mass.

While focusing her studies on the cornea, she used the new technologies to show that the molecules in the matrix helped determine cell behavior, including cell shape, cell-to-cell signaling and tissue function. Her work also fostered better understanding of what connective tissue cells and protective epithelial cells contribute to the matrix.

Later, she used genetic labeling and video microscopy, in part to explore how cells move. She also researched developing embryos with the idea of one day being able to "fix" cells that appear to cause cleft palates, cancer and abnormal wound healing.

Elizabeth Dexter Hay was born April 2, 1927, in St. Augustine, Fla., and raised in Melbourne, Fla., where her father was a surgeon and her mother was a nurse. Her parents opened the first hospital and first operating theater in Melbourne in what had been an abandoned hotel.

She received a bachelor's degree summa cum laude in 1948 from Smith College and was a 1952 graduate of Johns Hopkins University's medical school, where she was one of four women in the class.

"I did not even apply to Harvard Medical School, as there was a rumor among the Smith premeds that Harvard had no bathrooms for female students," she told the Journal of Cell Science decades later.

"One interesting phenomenon I witnessed at Smith was that many of the female students were just as prejudiced against women working as were the men of that era," she said. "At graduation of the seniors, the junior students in my resident house serenaded all the seniors individually at a farewell party. The song they made up for me went, 'Poor Hay, going off to medical school; Poor Hay, whatever will become of her?'

"Thus," she said, "a major change for women in science during my career has been the attitude of the women themselves."

Her mentor at Smith, biologist S. Meryl Rose, advised her that a medical degree would afford more career opportunities than a doctorate, even though Dr. Hay knew she wanted to pursue research. Her early research focus, on limb regeneration in amphibians, was done with Rose at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts while she was in medical school.

She was an assistant anatomy professor at the Cornell University medical school and worked closely with department chairman Don Fawcett. She followed Fawcett to Harvard in 1960 when he became anatomy department chairman.

Dr. Hay retired from Harvard in 2005. She was the first woman elected president of the American Society for Cell Biology and the Society for Developmental Biology, whose journal she edited in the early 1970s; she received the highest honors of both organizations. She also was a former president of the American Association of Anatomists and received its top prize.

Dr. Hay was chairman of national advisory boards and councils and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1984. She edited the influential volume "Cell Biology of Extracellular Matrix" (1981) -- published when few considered the ECM part of a cell.

Outside of work, she enjoyed foraging for wild mushrooms.

Survivors include a sister.

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