Elizabeth Stern Biography

Medical Professional, Doctor, Scientist (1915–1980)
Pathologist Elizabeth Stern identified 250 stages of a cervical cells' progression from normal to cancerous, a breakthrough in women’s health that enabled early cancer detection and treatment.


Pathologist Elizabeth Stern was born on September 19, 1915, in Cobalt, Ontario, Canada, and joined the faculty of the University of California in 1963 as an associate professor of epidemiology. Stern identified 250 stages of a cervical cell's progression from normal to cancerous, making early cancer detection and treatment possible. Stern also discovered a link between oral contraceptives and cervical cancer. She died on August 18, 1980, in Los Angeles, California.

Early Life, Education and Career

Elizabeth Stern was born on September 19, 1915 in Cobalt, Ontario, Canada. She earned her medical degree from the University of Toronto in 1939 and then went on to study at the Pennsylvania Medical School. She was a resident in pathology at Good Samaritan and Cedars of Lebanon Hospitals in Los Angeles, California, from 1942 to 1946, and served as an associate pathologist at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital from 1946 to 1949. During the 1950s, Stern worked at the Cancer Detection Center in Los Angeles. She was a lecturer and researcher at the University of Southern California Medical School and the Department of Pathology at the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1963, she joined the faculty at UCLA’s School of Public Health and in 1965 was promoted to a full professor. 

Research Contributions

While working at the Cancer Detection Center, Stern became interested in cervical cancer and devoted the rest of her life to studying its causes and development. Through her research, she found that cervical cells go through 250 stages as they develop from healthy cells to cancerous. Identifying those stages made it possible to detect cervical cancer before it reached an advanced stage, making it highly treatable as a result. Before Stern's discoveries, it was almost always fatal.

In 1963, Stern published a paper based on her research that showed a connection between the herpes simplex virus and cervical cancer. In the 1970s, she and her colleagues published papers in scientific journals that presented evidence that women who used oral contraceptives were more likely to develop cervical dysplasia—a precursor to cervical cancer—than those who used other contraceptive methods. Their work also showed that dysplasia was more severe in women who used oral contraceptives and that it was more likely to progress to cancer than in women who did not use birth control pills. Stern was the first person to report that link. Her conclusions were based on 10 years of research conducted with 10,000 women who used the Los Angeles County family planning clinic.

During the 1970s Elizabeth Stern was diagnosed with stomach cancer and began undergoing chemotherapy treatments. Despite her illness, however, she persevered in her work until the late 1970s. Stern died of stomach cancer on August 18, 1980, in Los Angeles, California. Following her death, her colleagues at UCLA praised her for leaving her research in good order so that others could complete the work she left unfinished.

Personal Life

Elizabeth Stern became a U.S. citizen in 1943. She was married to chemist Solomon Shankman, with whom she had three children.

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