When M. Elaine Eyster, M.D., F.A.C.P., arrived at Penn State College of Medicine in 1970, she was the first female clinical faculty member. Three years later, the renowned and beloved hematologist became Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center’s first female division chief when she was appointed head of the Division of Hematology.
But by then, being a female trailblazer was nothing new for Eyster, whose subsequent pioneering biomedical research on hemophilia, HIV and AIDS, and hepatitis C was instrumental in helping to establish Penn State College of Medicine’s strong national reputation. After earning her A.B. in chemistry from Duke University in 1956, the winner of the 2011 Duke Medical Alumni Association’s Distinguished Alumna Award was just one of three women in her 1960 Duke University School of Medicine graduating class. It was more of the same at what is now the New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City, where she was the only female out of a dozen residents in her internal medicine residency class.
“I guess you could say I’ve always been outnumbered,” says the Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Pathology. “I guess I learned how not to be intimidated very early. Being a minority helped me to build the self-confidence that I needed to succeed in academia. But my colleagues were always very good to me and gave me a lot of support.”
During her residency and subsequent hematology fellowship at Cornell Medical Center, the most supportive of those colleagues was her husband, the late Robert E. Dye, M.D., whom she met there and married in 1965. “Bob and I had forty-six wonderful years of marriage,” she says now. “His love, his encouragement, his support, his understanding, and his patience made my career possible.”
While working at Cornell after their fellowships, both Eyster and Dye were recruited to Penn State Hershey by Graham Jeffries, M.D., a young Cornell faculty member who became the founding chair of the Department of Medicine; Dye became his first gastroenterology recruit.
The couple agreed it was a good opportunity to join a nascent medical school and to raise their two young sons in an environment similar to the ones in which they had been raised—she in York, Pennsylvania, he in West Virginia. Nonetheless, after living in New York City and working in a large medical center, moving to Hershey—which did not yet even have a hospital building—resulted in significant culture shock.
“It was quite different coming back here,” she recalls. “It was like night and day.”
The medical culture was also radically different. “I always said I’d give anything for the time I spent as an intern, but I also never would want to do it again,” she says. “But when we got to Hershey we did do it all over again. Because we didn’t have any interns, the faculty were the interns.”
Eyster, who headed the hematology division for twenty-three years, gravitated towards hematology early in her internal medicine residency. “I’m basically a people person, but I enjoy the laboratory. Hematology gave me the opportunity to combine the two,” she explains. “Most of my time is spent trying to devise ways to better understand my patients’ problems, and there are so many tests that can be conducted on readily accessible blood samples.”
In 1982 the hundreds of blood plasma samples from her patients that she had been freezing and storing for a decade thrust her into the heart of efforts to decipher the dawn of the HIV and AIDS epidemic among gay U.S. males. When three hemophiliacs developed similar immune disorder symptoms, Eyster joined forces with researchers working at the National Institutes of Health.
“The fact is we didn’t know anything about what the disease was and how it was transmitted,” recalls Eyster, who attended a meeting in Washington, D.C., that summer at which the term AIDS was coined. “It was extremely frightening.”
As for her frozen blood samples, she recalls, “It turned out the samples really played a central role in elucidating how the infections were transmitted and, more importantly, how the disease progressed in people who had acquired the infections. It was a key to identifying and really quantifying the long latency period that existed between the time our patients got the infection and the onset of AIDS.”
Eyster and James J. Goedert, M.D., a senior investigator at the National Cancer Institute, with whom she collaborated for twenty-five years, were able to determine that the latency period before symptoms appeared could range anywhere from two years to ten years or more—information that was particularly useful in counseling patients. Now, she notes, thanks to a number of drugs that first became available during the 1990s, the once-fatal HIV and AIDS is now a chronic disease with which people continue to lead productive lives.
Later, Eyster did similar research that helped to understand the problem of hemophiliac patients developing hepatitis C from blood transfusions. (In fact, her original rationale for freezing her patients’ blood samples was to probe, in those patients, what were once called non-A, non-B hepatitis infections.)
The director of the hemophilia program and medical director of the Hemostasis and Special Coagulation Laboratories for the past forty years, Eyster is currently investigating antibodies found in hemophiliac patients that inhibit the function of blood-clotting factors. “It’s the most important adverse effect of hemophiliac treatment,” she explains, “so now, with my colleagues here at Hershey and collaborators at other institutions, I am focusing on why these inhibitors develop and how they cause bleeding.”
Eyster is also a member of the Penn State Hershey Cancer Institute, and she still loves teaching. “It’s just wonderful to work with young, bright, energetic students, residents and fellows who are eager to learn and have far more information than I do about so many things,” she says. “It’s just incredible how inquisitive they are and the questions they ask and how much this stimulates me to continue to try to learn.”
In addition, she is amazed by how much Penn State Hershey has grown during her tenure here. “When I came here, the hospital hadn’t opened yet, so we had to take our students to Harrisburg Hospital for clinical training. Since then the number of buildings that have been added to the campus is mind-boggling, and with that has obviously come growth in the number of patients, staff, and faculty members. As a result, it’s pretty exciting what we’ve been able to do with the Cancer Institute, for example, and the opening of the Children’s Hospital.”
“It’s unbelievable what has happened over the past 40 years.”
As just one example of how beloved she is to those who have been and continue to be a part of Penn State Hershey, a College of Medicine scholarship—the Dr. M. Elaine Eyster Scholarship in Medicine—was established anonymously in 2001.
She and her family also were the lead donors for the endowed M. Elaine Eyster, M.D. Professorship in Hematology, and over the years she has generously donated to the College of Medicine, the Division of Hematology and the Palliative Care Fund. “I’m fortunate that I have had such a rewarding life, both professionally and personally, and I like to share that good fortune by giving back to the community and Penn State Hershey because it’s been such a major part of my life.”
“I’m proud to be a member of the Penn State Hershey family, and as such I feel it is important to contribute to training physicians to benefit the next generation of caregivers. As physicians, we need to lead by example, and whether that’s by providing our time, talents or financial support to things in which we believe, I think that’s important.”
And she certainly plans to continue to do all of the above. About a decade ago, she cut her work schedule in half so she could spend more time with her late husband; her sons Rob, a financial sector specialist in Austin, Texas, and Charles (“Chip”) Dye, ’95, M.D., who practices in the Division of Gastroenterology; her daughters-in-law; and her six grandchildren. She has also been able to devote more time to such interests as photographing those grandchildren, golfing, and cooking up such favorite dishes as cordon bleu.
But full retirement doesn’t appear to be imminent. When an interviewer noted that most people her age are not just half-retired, they are completely retired, she responded with a wry laugh:
“Most people ten years younger than I are retired. But I still love what I do. There’s something in me that enjoys getting up and coming in to do the things I enjoy. And as long as I am able to do it and there’s a need for me to do it, I’ll continue. When the fire burns out, I’ll stop, but so far the fire is still burning.”
to read additional stories on the Penn State College of Medicine Alumni Update.