In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, Archives and Special Collections would like to highlight the life and career of NMSU alumna Dr. Sarah Elizabeth Stewart, a Mexican-American cancer researcher.
George Stewart, an American mining engineer with interests in Jalisco, Mexico met and married Maria Andrade while working in the region. On August 16, 1906, their daughter Sarah was born. With the start of the Mexican Revolution and the expulsion of President Porfirio Diaz, the Stewarts were asked to the leave the country. In 1911, the family moved to Oregon and later during Sarah’s high school years, moved to New Mexico.
Stewart graduated from Las Cruces High School in 1923 where she was the dramatics editor of the school’s yearbook, The Crosses. She enrolled at New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (now NMSU) where she received her BS degree in home economics and general science with a major in biology. During her time as an undergraduate, she was a member of the Kappa Phi home economics sorority and the Sigma Epsilon science fraternity, was involved in various literary organizations, and appeared in several dramatic productions. She even joined the women’s basketball team in her first year. She graduated as the class salutatorian in 1927. She then went on to receive an MS in microbiology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 1930, a PhD in microbiology from the University of Chicago in 1939, and a Doctorate of Medicine from Georgetown University School of Medicine in 1949—the first female graduate of the school. She also received an honorary Doctorate of Laws from NMSU in 1961 and the Distinguished Alumni Award in 1972, in addition to two Nobel Peace prize nominations and numerous other awards.
After receiving her undergraduate degree, Stewart went to work briefly as a high school home economics teacher. Realizing the work was not for her, she applied for fellowships at schools across the country. She was accepted into the graduate program at Massachusetts Agricultural College (now University of Massachusetts, Amherst) studying bacteriology and chemistry. For three years after graduation, she worked at the Colorado Experimental Station in Fort Collins as a bacteriologist in soil science before moving on to obtain her PhD. She studied at the University of Colorado School of Medicine for two years when she took a position at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). She completed her PhD studies at the University of Chicago while working for the NIH.
Stewart had an interest in studying the links, if any, between viruses and cancer. At the time, the medical community considered the idea improbable. Citing a lack of education and experience with human research, the NIH and National Cancer Institute (NCI) refused to fund Stewart’s research. In 1944, she left the NIH for a teaching position at Georgetown University. This allowed her to take medical courses until she was able to enroll officially as a medical student when the school began accepting female students in 1947. She received her medical degree at the age of 43.
The NIH continued to deny Stewart’s desire to study cancer, so she took a temporary position at a hospital in Staten Island for more experience. Finally, after an appointment to medical director in the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and a position at the NCI in Baltimore, the NIH accepted her request to study cancer.
Stewart was not the first to try to link cancer to viruses. In 1911, Peyton Rous found the Rous sarcoma virus responsible for causing tumors in chickens. In the 1930s, Richard Shope and John Bittner discovered viruses that caused cancer in rabbits and mice. Their findings went unappreciated for decades. In 1951, Ludwig Gross was able to produce leukemia in mice by injecting ground up leukemic organs of mice into newborn mice. In an attempt to verify Gross’ findings, Stewart and her research partner, Dr. Bernice Eddy, produced multiple other types of tumors in their experiments. Further testing led to the discovery of what they called the SE (Stewart-Eddy) polyomavirus. Stewart and Eddy were able to prove successfully the transmission of certain viral cancer cells between animal species. These breakthroughs opened the floodgates for viral oncology research. Multiple cancers are now linked to oncoviruses. The human papillomavirus can cause cervical cancer; the Epstein-Barr virus can cause stomach cancer and some types of lymphoma; and the Hepatitis B and C viruses can cause liver cancer.
Stewart went on to become the medical director of the NCI Laboratory of Oncology. She retired in 1970 and became a professor at Georgetown University. On November 27, 1976, Sarah Stewart died of cancer. Her papers are held by the National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine.