Hobart and William Smith Colleges mourn the loss of William Smith alumna and Elizabeth Blackwell Award recipient Priscilla A. Schaffer ’64, Sc.D. ’94, professor of medicine (microbiology and molecular genetics), who died on Nov. 18, 2009. Schaffer had been fighting a series of complications caused by Parkinson’s Disease.
An internationally recognized expert on herpes viruses, Schaffer graduated Phi Beta Kappa as a double-major in biology and chemistry at the Colleges, where she was also a member of the volleyball team, Schola Cantorum and Little Theatre. Her junior year she was awarded the B.J. Johnston Prize. She received her doctorate with distinction in microbiology from Cornell University Medical College in 1969. After only two years as a postdoctoral researcher at Baylor College of Medicine, she was appointed assistant professor in the school’s Department of Virology and Epidemiology.
A member of the William Smith Centennial Honorary Committee, Schaffer also served on the HWS Board of Trustees from 1986-1994 and received many awards. She is the only William Smith alumna to receive the Elizabeth Blackwell Award, which is given to women whose lives exemplify outstanding service to humankind. The award is named for Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in America to receive the Doctor of Medicine degree, which she earned in 1849 from Geneva Medical College, later Hobart College. In receiving the award, Schaffer joined such notable women as former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, professional tennis legend Billie Jean King, and anthropologist and author Margaret Mead.
Schaffer joined the Harvard Medical School community in 1976 as an associate professor in microbiology and molecular genetics and chief of the Laboratory of Tumor Virus Genetics at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. She was promoted to professor of microbiology and molecular genetics in 1981.
In 1996, Schaffer left Harvard Medical School to serve as chair of the Department of Microbiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, making her the first woman to serve as chair of any department at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. She returned to Harvard in 2001, serving as professor of medicine (microbiology and molecular genetics) and chief of the Laboratory of Molecular Virology at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center until 2007, when she moved to Arizona where she continued her research at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
As a researcher, Schaffer worked to elucidate the mechanisms by which herpes simplex virus (HSV) replicates and causes disease. In addition to publishing more than 150 peer-reviewed papers, she was a beloved educator and mentor who trained numerous doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows over the course of her career. She nurtured the unique talents of each member of her lab, bringing out the best in everyone.
She is survived by her mother, Marie Knudsen Schaffer of Knoxville; sisters Phyllis Kraft of Pretoria, South Africa, and Judith Burt of Nashville; brothers Albert Schaffer of Colorado Springs, and Stephen Schaffer of Nashville; and her friend and caregiver Madelon Cook of Tucson.