Campus & Community

Hay, HMS embryologist, dies at 80

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Elizabeth Dexter Hay, embryologist and educator at Harvard Medical School (HMS), died this past Aug. 20. She was 80 years old.

Hay attended Smith College and received her M.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1952. She was one of only four women in the class. A pioneer in the use of the electron microscope — a new tool in cell biology research — Hay became a renowned expert in the developing field of cell biology.

Beginning first at Johns Hopkins, then at Cornell Medical School, and finally at HMS, Hay concentrated on cell proliferation and migration. This work led to her greatest scientific contribution: understanding the extracellular matrix (ECM), a complex structure that surrounds and supports the cell and is often referred to as connective tissue. Hay was the first to show that the ECM plays a vital role in determining cell behaviors, including cell shape, cell-to-cell signaling, wound repair, cell adhesion, and tissue function. Most recently, she elucidated many of the mechanisms involved in the transformation of cells from more primitive to advanced forms, coining the term “epithelial-to-mesenchymal transformation.”

Hay was named the Louise Foote Pfeiffer Professor of Embryology at HMS in 1969. As chair of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, she was the first woman to head a preclinical department at the School. Additionally, she was the first woman elected president of the American Society of Cell Biology and the Society for Developmental Biology. She was also the first female to receive the Conklin Medal in Developmental Biology and the second woman president of the American Association of Anatomists.

HMS and Hay’s family will host a memorial service in her honor on Nov. 17. In lieu of flowers, please send donations marked “In memory of Elizabeth D. Hay” to March of Dimes, Attention: Kyra Minihane, 114 Turnpike Road, Suite 202, Westboro, MA 01581, for research in craniofacial development and birth defects.