In 2002, to mark Elizabeth Dexter Hay's 75th birthday, scientists and doctors from around the United States gathered at Harvard University for a daylong symposium on cell biology. For more than forty years, Dr. Hay led the way in understanding the cell and its behaviors. From her earliest research on limb regeneration in newts to studies on how embryonic cells send and receive messages, the story of Dr. Elizabeth Hay's contributions to cell biology is part of the story of the field itself.
During her first biology course as an undergraduate at Smith College in Massachusetts, Elizabeth Dexter Hay found both her calling to cell biology and her mentor, Professor S. Meryl Rose. Knowing Hay's interest in scientific research, Professor Rose encouraged her to pursue a medical career because he believed she would have more opportunities as an M.D. than a Ph.D. Graduating summa cum laude from Smith in 1948, she was accepted to attend the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. When she received her doctor of medicine degree in 1952, she was one of only four women in her class. Following her internship, Dr. Hay joined the anatomy faculty at Hopkins, while continuing the regeneration research she had begun with Professor Rose. By the mid-1950s Dr. Hay had a new toolthe electron microscopeand she quickly became a renowned expert in the rapidly developing field of cell biology. Serving as assistant professor of anatomy at Cornell Medical College in New York from 1957 to 1960, Dr. Hay continued her work on regeneration, concentrating on cell proliferation and migration. This work led to her greatest scientific contributionunderstanding the extracellular matrix or ECM, a complex structure that surrounds and supports cells, often referred to as "connective tissue."
Scientists first thought of the extracellular matrix as a sort of unchanging support structure outside cells. Dr. Hay was the first to show that the extracellular matrix plays a vital role in determining cell behaviors including cell shape, cell-to-cell signaling, wound repair, cell adhesion, and tissue function, among others. Concentrating her studies on the cornea, Dr. Hay was able to show the central importance of the molecules of the extracellular matrix.
Based on her pioneering work at Harvard Medical School, where she was named the Louise Foote Pfeiffer Professor of Embryology in 1969, Dr. Hay's research formed the foundation of an entire field in cellular biology. "I was pretty much alone in working in this area then," said Dr. Hay a few decades later, "but now there is always a plenary session and many poster sessions on ECM at every ASCB [American Society of Cell Biology] meeting." Her later research used genetic labeling and video microscopy to study the interactions between cells and their surroundings that allow cells to migrate. In the hope that we will someday understand how to "fix" cells that go awry (such as those found in cleft palate, cancer, and abnormal wound healing), Hay's work concentrated on cellular processes of the developing embryo.
Dr. Hay's career marked many "firsts." From 1975 to 1993, as head of the Department of Anatomy and Cellular Biology at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Hay was the first woman to head a preclinical department at Harvard Medical School. "For us in those decades," Dr. Hay explained, "there were quite a few 'firsts' up for grabs. I was the first full professor in a HMS preclinical department, the first female elected president of the American Society of Cell Biology and the Society for Developmental Biology, and the first female to receive the Society's Conklin Medal in Developmental Biology." She was also among the first women to have a portrait hung in Harvard's Benjamin Waterhouse faculty room.
Dr. Hay was elected to a number of prestigious scientific societies for her influential work in cell biology, including the National Academy of Sciences, the Johns Hopkins Society of Scholars, and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. She also received a distinguished achievement award from the New York Hospital/Cornell Medical Center Alumni Council, and the American Association of Anatomists' Henry Gray Award. In 1989 she was awarded the American Society of Cell Biology's highest honor, the E.B. Wilson Medal. In 1999 Harvard Medical School established a fellowship in honor of Dr. Hay.