Women in Science: Elizabeth Stern

Fagjun | Published 2017-11-12 02:06

Learn more about Elizabeth Stern, the woman who helped us gain more understanding about the diagnosis, treatment, as well as the prevention of cervical cancer.

Elizabeth Stern [Photo by Janet Williamson]



It’s not often that we hear about women scientists. Science was and still is a male-dominated field, though that has been steadily changing over the decades. Elizabeth Stern in particular has made significant contributions to her field, though it’s unlikely that you’ve heard of her before. However, it was Stern who was able to identify the 250 stages that a cell goes through to turn from a normal cell into a cancerous one. This was a significant breakthrough in women’s health, since her work allowed the early detection and treatment of cervical cancer. Other than this, Stern was also able to find a link between the development of cervical cancer and oral contraceptives.


Stern was the fifth of eight children born to Polish Jewish immigrants who fled to Canada to escape anti-Semitism in Europe.

Identifying Cervical Cancer Risks

Stern played a big role in modernizing the Pap smear test. [Photo via Women's Fitness]



Though Stern is a relative unknown nowadays, she had quite a solid career in scientific research. She graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in medicine, then went on to further her studies in the University of Pennsylvania. She then became a resident in pathology at two Los Angeles hospitals before serving as an associate pathologist.


Stern’s specialty was cytopathology, which refers to diagnosing a disease at the cellular level. Among the things she researched was the role of dysplasia--a condition involving the abnormal growth of cells--in cervical cancer. Pap smear tests, which were were able to reduce the impact of cervical cancer, had been able to note the presence of dysplasia. Back then, dysplasia wasn’t considered to be concerning. However, Stern hypothesized that dysplasia may be indicative of cervical cancer.


With this hypothesis, Stern conducted a seven-year study in which she found out that patients with dysplasia had a much higher risk for developing cervical cancer. Because of her research, the fact that dysplasia is a risk factor for cervical cancer is common knowledge today. Stern also modernized the Pap smear test by working with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the technique she developed is still in use in medical facilities today.

A Long Way to the Top

Stern also had a hand in making oral contraceptives safer for women.



Stern also discovered that the high-dose estrogen birth control pill increased the rate of cervical cancer six times. Her testimony on the matter was valued by the FDA, and she exposed the risks that 1970s-era birth control pills posed on women. Thus, her work made it possible to have safer contraception today.


In the 1970s, Stern was diagnosed with stomach cancer. However, her cancer didn’t slow her down much, or maybe even at all. She kept up with her research and kept writing manuscripts all the way until her death on August 18, 1980.


Though Stern could be considered a pioneer for other women who want to make their mark on their own scientific fields, her career began as a struggle. Her daughter recalled that when Stern was working at UCLA, she wasn’t even paid a salary. Thankfully, things have become better since then, due in part to women like Elizabeth Stern.

Hey! Where are you going?? Subscribe!

Get weekly science updates in your inbox!