Meet Maud Slye, the first in our series on women who were nominated for the Nobel Prize but never won.
b. February 8, 1869 d. September 7, 1954
Year(s) nominated: 1923 by Albert Soiland
When Maud Slye began her work on the pathology of cancer, very few scientists believed that cancer was a genetic disease. Most experts thought that human cancers were either caused by viruses-like The Rous Sarcoma Virus, which had recently been implicated as the cause behind tumors in chickens, or a side-effect of rapid industrialization.
Slye's path into a scientific research career was a circuitous one. She was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1869. Although her parents were well-educated, they didn't have much money. After graduating from high school, she worked as a stenographer for nearly 10 years before finally matriculating into the University of Chicago, where she continued to support herself by working as a secretary to the president of the college. When that proved too stressful, she transferred to Brown University, where she completed her undergraduate degree in 1895.
In 1908, zoologist Charles Otis Whitman, invited Slye, who had been teaching psychology at a small school in Rhode Island, to join his lab at University of Chicago as a graduate research assistant. She began in his lab by studying “Japanese waltzing mice”, a breed of mice with a neurological defect that prevents them from being able to walk in a straight line, but soon switched over to investigating the role of inheritance in cancer and, soon, running her own lab.
Slye was notoriously devoted to her mice. She didn't trust her lab assistants to care for the mice properly, so when she attended conferences, she would often bring her mice with her. Sometimes she had to use her own pocket money to buy what she considered proper food for the mice, and if times were particularly lean, she sometimes skipped her own meals to ensure she could feed her mice.
Her goal was relatively simple: She believed that cancer was caused by a recessive gene and that with sufficiently attentive breeding, cancer could be bred out of mice. (And, in theory, humans.) Although it eventually became clear that a single recessive gene could not explain the heterogeneity of cancer, Slye's work was crucial in establishing the idea that cancer was, at least in part, genetic. In a 1926 article in the Canadian Journal of Medicine, fellow cancer pathologist Madge T. Macklin wrote, “With no other artificial measures other than the choice of appropriate mates (those known to carry the recessive factor for abnormal tissue growth, she can change what has been for generations an apparently cancer-free strain of mice into a strain in which every mouse develops the disease.”
Results like that were hard to ignore, but it would take several decades for the focus of cancer research to shift away from virally-induced cancers to genetically-induced ones.
Over the course of her career, Slye bred, raised, and autopsied over 150,000 mice. According to one rumor, she lied about her birth year in order to avoid an early retirement, and when she finally did retire from the lab, she continued to work on analyzing data from her breeding experiments in mice. She died of a heart attack, at age 75, in 1954.
"Advancement of Science". Time. Jan 11, 1937.
Macklin, Madge Thurlow. “Inheritance in Cancer: A Note on the Work of Maud Slye” Can Med Assoc J. Sep 1926; 16(9): 1119–1120.
"Mouse Matching". Time. Nov 16, 1936.
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