Maud Slye Biography (1879-1954)


Maud Slye devoted her life to cancer research by investigating the inheritability of the disease in mice. Performing extensive breeding studies on the hereditary transmission of cancer, she kept meticulous pedigree records and autopsied thousands of mice during her lifetime. Her work was controversial, however; advocating the archiving of complete medical records for individuals, she believed that human beings could eradicate cancer by choosing mates with the appropriate genotype. Sometimes referred to as "America's Curie," Slye received wide publicity for her work and was honored by many organizations.

Slye was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on February 8, 1879, the daughter ofJames Alvin and Florence Alden Wheeler Slye. Her family, though poor, tracedtheir ancestry back to John Alden of the Plymouth colony. At age seventeen,Slye entered the University of Chicago with savings of forty dollars and thedesire to become a scientist. Attending the university for three years, she supported herself by working as a secretary for university president William Harper. After a nervous breakdown, Slye convalesced in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, then completed her B.A. degree at Brown University in 1899. Hired as a teacher at the Rhode Island State Normal School, she stayed at the institutionuntil 1905.

In 1908 Slye received a grant to do postgraduate work at the University of Chicago. Interested in the hereditary basis of disease, she began her work withsix Japanese "waltzing" mice which were afflicted with a hereditary neurological disorder. Slye became intrigued by the inheritability of cancer when sheheard of several heads of cattle at the Chicago stock yards--all with cancerof the eye--that had come from the same ranch. Inspired by this and other data, Slye went forward with her studies, breeding cancerous mice with one another as well as healthy mice with other healthy mice.

In 1911, Slye became a member of the university's newly created Sprague Memorial Institute, and in 1913 she presented her first paper on cancer before theAmerican Society for Cancer Research. Becoming director of the Cancer Laboratory at the University of Chicago in 1919, she was promoted to assistant professor in 1922, then to associate professor in 1926. In 1936, Slye left her mice in the care of an assistant and took her first vacation in twenty-six years (earlier, when she had visited her ailing mother in California, she renteda boxcar and took her mice with her).

Although Slye discredited a prevailing theory that stated cancer was contagious, it became clear as her work proceeded that the appearance of cancer in anindividual was not as simple as the presence of one gene. In later years, Slye posited that two conditions were necessary to produce cancer: inherited susceptibility, and prolonged irritation of the cancer-susceptible tissues. Nonetheless, further studies by other scientists have confirmed that while heredity can be a factor in certain types of cancer, it is much more complex thanSlye had perceived.

Slye's work was recognized with several awards and honors, including the goldmedal of the American Medical Association in 1914, and the Ricketts Prize in1915. She also received the gold medal of the American Radiological Societyin 1922. A member of the Association for Cancer Research, the American Medical Association, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Slye was the author of forty-two brochures on cancer and two volumes of poetry, Songs and Solaces and I in the Wind. At the time of her retirement in 1945 Slye was made professor emeritus of pathology, and she spent her retirement years analyzing data accumulated during her years of research. Slye never married. She died September 17, 1954, and was buried in Chicago's Oak Woods Cemetery.

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