Alum, Blackwell Recipient Remembered – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
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Alum, Blackwell Recipient Remembered

The Boston Globe recently paid tribute to the late Dr. Priscilla Schaffer, Blackwell Award recipient, and one of William Smith’s most accomplished alumnae. Schaffer conducted groundbreaking research on herpesviruses.

“She really loved doing research,” said Don Coen, one of Dr. Schaffer’s former colleagues and a professor in the Department of Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology at Harvard Medical School. “Right from the very beginning, she became one of the leading people who took a genetic approach to herpesviruses.”

The article goes on to note, “Dr. Schaffer researched herpesviruses, specializing in the research of herpes simplex, and collected many of the viruses’ mutants, which allowed researchers to study almost every aspect of their biology, Coen said, from how they express genes to how they replicate DNA, respond to antiviral drugs, and interact with hosts.”

An accomplished researcher and educator, she was the first female to hold the position of chair of the department of microbiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Schaffer served on the HWS Board of Trustees from 1986-1994.

The full article about Dr. Schaffer follows.


Boston Globe
Dr. Priscilla Schaffer, leader in study of herpesviruses; at 67

Shana Wickett • February 8, 2010

Dr. Priscilla Schaffer, a longtime Harvard Medical School professor whose research opened doors to understanding herpesviruses, died Nov. 18 at Oro Valley Hospital in Arizona of complications of Parkinson’s disease. The former Holliston resident was 67.

“She really loved doing research,” said Don Coen, one of Dr. Schaffer’s former colleagues and a professor in the Department of Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology at Harvard Medical School. “Right from the very beginning, she became one of the leading people who took a genetic approach to herpesviruses.” Dr. Schaffer researched herpesviruses, specializing in the research of herpes simplex, and collected many of the viruses’ mutants, which allowed researchers to study almost every aspect of their biology, Coen said, from how they express genes to how they replicate DNA, respond to antiviral drugs, and interact with hosts.

Dr. Schaffer was born in St. Louis, Mo., and grew up in nearby St. Charles. She showed interest in biology at an early age, said her sister, Judith Burt of Nashville. When Dr. Schaffer was about 11 years old, she dissected a frog on the family’s front stoop.

“That was the first time I ever saw a creature’s heart beating outside its body,” Burt said. “We learned a lot about science because of her curiosity.” And when Dr. Schaffer and her brother Albert, of Colorado Springs, Colo., were young, they used a microscope from their uncle’s physics laboratory to view weeds and bugs, Albert said.

Dr. Schaffer’s father, an Episcopal clergyman, moved the family briefly to Sharon, Pa., in 1956 before moving to Brookfield, Ohio.

Dr. Schaffer graduated from high school in Brookfield in 1960. She received a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., in 1964 and a doctorate in microbiology in 1969 from Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, according to Focus, a Harvard online publication. Her research focused on the Venezuelan encephalitis virus.

She began studying herpesviruses as a postdoctoral researcher at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, from 1969 to 1971 and became an assistant professor in Baylor’s Department of Virology and Epidemiology in 1971, according to the Harvard publication.

Dr. Schaffer became an associate professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at Harvard Medical School in 1976 and chief of the Laboratory of Tumor Virus Genetics at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston in 1980, Harvard officials said. She became a full professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at Harvard Medical School in 1981

She became chair of the Department of Microbiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 1996. She became a professor of medicine in 2000 and chief of the laboratory of molecular virology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston in 2001.

Dr. Schaffer continued her research of herpesviruses as a professor of molecular and cellular biology at the University of Arizona in Tucson in 2007.

Hobart and William Smith Colleges awarded her the Elizabeth Blackwell Award for outstanding service to humanity in 2007.

“She was definitely strongly interested in the health importance of her research,” Coen said. “She was interested more generally in the importance of science for the public good, and she was very invested in protecting the integrity of science.” In the fall, students and fellows whom Dr. Schaffer trained and mentored, along with her colleagues, created a fund to establish a lecture in her honor at the 35th annual International Herpesvirus Workshop in Salt Lake in July, Coen said. The lecture will be offered at future workshops and will run perpetually depending on fund-raising efforts, Coen wrote via e-mail. The fund also supports the participation of two postdoctoral fellows or graduate students.

“She took training people in her laboratory and being a good mentor far beyond what most scientists do,” and continued supporting and helping trainees long after they worked with her, Coen said.

“She really generated a generation of high-quality scientists who are now respected in their own right,” Burt said.

Dr. Schaffer was an avid horseback rider and was fond of nature and wildlife.
She drew and painted pictures of nature, and she took photos of her travels in the Southwest, Mexico, Europe, and South Africa, Burt said.

She also enjoyed driving fast, listening to classical music, and sharing “convivial atmospheres,” Coen said. Albert called her a “captivating conversationalist” with a great sense of humor, a considerate and encouraging personality, and a tenacious drive to accomplish goals.

Dr. Schaffer also loved caring for two cocker spaniels, Babette and Tucker.

In addition to her siblings Burt and Albert, Dr. Schaffer leaves her mother, Marie K., of Nashville; another sister, Phyllis Kraft, of Pretoria, South Africa; another brother, Stephen, of Nashville; and her caregiver and friend Madelon Cook of Tucson. Services have been held.

Copyright© 2010 For The Boston Globe