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Elizabeth Hay, at 80; was pioneer for women in science

Elizabeth Hay with an electron microscope. Elizabeth Hay with an electron microscope.

Years before she blazed trails with research in cell biology and trained generations of aspiring scientists at Harvard Medical School, Elizabeth Hay was just a young woman who liked to take things apart. Animals, preferably.

"Biological structure was just something that clicked with me," she said in an interview published three years ago in the International Journal of Developmental Biology.

During her first summer off from college, Dr. Hay said, she taught horseback riding at a camp in Fairfield, Vt., "and whenever the little girls would bring in a dead squirrel or whatnot, I'd dissect it for everybody and show them where the stomach was and so on. And I couldn't get enough of this desire to see what was inside various animals."

Dr. Hay, the first woman to lead a preclinical department at the medical school and a researcher who helped define the role of material that surrounds cells and supports the microscopic mass in tissue, died of lung cancer on Aug. 20 in Wayland Nursing & Rehabilitation Center.

She was 80 and had lived in Weston for many years.

"For us in those decades, there were quite a few 'firsts' up for grabs," she said for a biography on the National Library of Medicine website of her success as a woman at Harvard Medical School and elsewhere.

"I was the first full professor in a HMS preclinical department, the first female elected president of the American Society for Cell Biology and the Society for Developmental Biology, and the first female to receive the Society's Conklin Medal in Developmental Biology."

Nevertheless, Dr. Hay preferred to keep the focus on science, rather than on breaking ground for women in her field.

"So many women get together as scientists and they are angry at men for holding them back," said Marion Gordon, an associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Rutgers University, who was a visiting student at Harvard Medical School in 1985 when she met Dr. Hay. "Betty was born at a different time. I never once heard her say anything about men holding her back. People looked up to her as a woman, and she probably would have hated that, because she felt we were all scientists."

Beginning in the mid-1950s, Dr. Hay used the higher resolution available with electron microscopes to become a rising star in the field of cell biology.

First at Cornell University Medical College, then at Harvard, her research led to a more complete understanding of the extracellular matrix - the complex structure around cells that is known as connective tissue.

"I think Betty Hayes's contributions are appreciated today almost as much as they were when she made them," said Dr. Marc Kirschner, chairman of the systems biology department at Harvard Medical School.

The route she took to engaging in lasting research was, by her own description, arduous.

Born in St. Augustine, Fla., she was raised mostly in Melbourne, 140 miles south along the state's Atlantic coast, where her parents started the community's first hospital. Elizabeth Dexter Hay recalled attending "a lousy high school" where the biology teacher was also a coach.

"I hid my interest in science from him and other students," she told the International Journal of Developmental Biology. "I did a lot of reading on my own. It was not very fashionable to be a study wart at that time."

Smith College was an escape. She ran the weekly newspaper, was house president, and a member of the riding team.

And she took a biology course with S. Meryl Rose, whose influence prompted Dr. Hay to set aside her aspirations to be an artist and pursue science.

"Meryl Rose urged me to get an MD," she said in the journal interview. "He told me, 'You're not going to get any good jobs unless you have an MD. If you just get a PhD you're going to get stuck in a girl's college like Smith for the rest of your life.' "

She went to Johns Hopkins Medical School, where she was one of four women in a class of 74, and graduated in 1952. She shrugged off the gender disparity.

"My research has always come first, because I have this intense desire to find answers, using the scientific approach," she told the Journal of Cell Science in 2004. "In order to work with the best people, I have had to move around alone - e.g. from Baltimore to New York to Boston - leaving many good friends behind.

"Early on, I dated many attractive young men, including medical students. Most were looking for homemakers. Their taste for career females was not high. However, this attitude is changing miraculously today in two-career families, where the homework is shared by both sexes," she said.

As a mentor, she readily shared her access to top scientists with students she would bring along to exclusive parties, lectures, and award ceremonies, such as when she received the E.B. Wilson Medal from the American Society for Cell Biology in 1988. By example, she also inspired students to question the greatest minds in their fields.

"At a seminar once, she got up after one speech and said, 'If you believe that, you must be blissfully ignorant,' " Gordon recalled.

"I think she really taught us how to think, how to critically think about the question you had or the idea you had," said Kathy Svoboda, professor of biomedical sciences at the Baylor College of Dentistry. "She taught you how to think critically about what others had written, so that when you wrote, you would put it together as a story, but also think critically about what you did and what you contributed to the advancement of your area."

Some of that teaching took place at Dr. Hay's house in Weston, where she created extensive gardens and prepared meals that concluded when she placed her cat on the table. Bambi would stroll from place setting to place setting, greeting each guest.

"She was working full time until April of 2005, until age 78," said her niece, Jennifer Hay of New York City. "She really was a force to be reckoned with."

Whether kayaking off Woods Hole or in Lake Cochituate, or engaging in her passion for gathering edible mushrooms, Dr. Hay "was very, very energetic," her niece said.

"She scared me when I was in the car with her sometimes because she'd slam on the brakes when she saw a mushroom and go out and get it," Gordon said. "She always had bags in her car."

In addition to her niece, Dr. Hay leaves a sister, Katherine Fletcher of Melbourne, Fla.

A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. Saturday in Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Melbourne. Harvard Medical School and Dr. Hay's family will hold a second service later in the fall.

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