Dr. Elise Depew Strang L'Esperance was a pioneer in establishing a preventive model of cancer treatment. She co-founded some of the first clinics devoted to the early detection and treatment of cancers, especially cervical cancer, including one clinic named for her mother, the Kate Depew Strang Tumor Clinic (now called the Strang Cancer Prevention Center).
Elise L'Esperance was born in 1878 in Yorktown, New York. Because her father was a physician, she decided to follow his path and enter the field of medicine. She enrolled at the Woman's Medical College of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, earning her M.D. there in 1900. With an early interest in pediatrics, she spent a year as an intern at Babies Hospital in New York, moved to Detroit, Michigan, to work in a private pediatric practice for two years, and returned to New York to continue this work in 1902.
Dr. L'Esperance grew frustrated by the limits of standard medical practice to meet the clinical needs of her patients. She became interested in medical research and managed to gain an appointment to the New York Tuberculosis Research Commission in 1908. Research suited her, and she took up pathology as a specialty. In fact, she was so fascinated by this field that in 1910 she took a job as a technical assistant at Cornell University Medical College just to be able to study with Dr. James Ewing, a noted cancer researcher. In 1914, she took a six-month leave to study pathology in Munich, Germany, with a Mary Putnam Jacobi fellowship. The results of her work in Germany on malignant hepatoma were published in the Journal of Medical Research in 1915. Her work was very productive, and from 1912 until 1920, Dr. L'Esperance was a respected instructor in pathology at Cornell. In 1920 she was made assistant professor.
Throughout this time, Dr. L'Esperance maintained professional relationships with New York medical institutions, including her alma mater and Bellevue Hospital, where she taught pathology. Ten years before she had been a frustrated clinician and technician, not to mention the only woman pathologist on staff at Cornell University Medical School. By 1920 she was a professor of pathology there. Under most circumstances this would be a satisfactory and impressive career, but Dr. L'Esperance soon had a chance to generate an even more remarkable legacy.
In 1930, Elise L'Esperance's mother died of cancer and within two years, her uncle died as well. Her uncle, the railroad magnate and former U.S. Senator Chauncey Depew, left her a considerabe inheritance. Dr. Elise L'Esperance founded several of the most durable and successful cancer prevention clinics in the United States in response to her mother's death, first founding the pioneering Kate Depew Strang Tumor Clinic, devoted to the early diagnosis of cancer in women, in 1937. Housed at the New York Infirmary and staffed exclusively by women physicians, the clinic proved a durable and popular model. A second clinic was opened at the behest of Dr. Ewing and clinics based on the same models of clinical practice were opened across the United States. Researchers working at the Strang Clinic were responsible for the Pap smear test for cervical cancer and the protoscope for colon and rectal cancers, but perhaps most importantly, the clinic proved the simple yet profound value of the yearly exam. Dr. L'Esperance directed the clinic for nearly two decades.
Dr. Elise Strang L'Esperance was recognized for her workshe accepted the position of professor of preventive medicine at Cornell University Medical Center in 1950 and won several prestigious awards, including the Lasker Award, for public health service. Perhaps not surprisingly, she never fully retired, and died at her home in Pelham Manor, New York in 1959.