American Society of Hematology

Eloise Giblett: The Rock of Puget Sound Blood Center

José A. López, MD

Published on: January 01, 2010

Executive Vice-President for Research, Puget Sound Blood Center; Professor of Medicine and Biochemistry, University of Washington

In September 2009, hematology lost one of its legends, Eloise R. Giblett, MD. Dr. Giblett was a native and life-long resident of the Pacific Northwest and spent her entire career at the Puget Sound Blood Center in Seattle and affiliated with the University of Washington. Among her many accomplishments, Dr. Giblett was one of the first to recognize polymorphism of human proteins. She identified a number of blood group antigens, and she uncovered the association of purine metabolism with hereditary immunodeficiency syndromes.

Dr. Giblett was born in Tacoma, WA, in 1927. She was known to all as Elo, an affectionate nickname given to her by college friends. Her mother instilled within her a love of music — a passion Elo carried throughout her life. Her primary musical interest was the violin; most of her life she played a violin given to her by her father when she was 11 years old, finally replacing it after she retired in 1987. Dr. Giblett’s first academic interest was English; it was only during college that she developed a keen interest in science, first majoring in chemistry and then switching to bacteriology (now known as microbiology) upon transferring from Mills College in Oakland, CA, to the University of Washington in Seattle. After her graduation during World War II, she joined the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), a division of the U.S. Navy, “to do something positive for the war effort,” in her words. Here, her bacteriology background held her in good stead, landing her a job in the clinical laboratory of the U.S. Naval Hospital in San Diego. While working at the hospital, she found that it was possible to diagnose meningococcemia on a stained blood smear, a finding that resulted in her first scientific publication, in the American Journal of Clinical Pathology.

Dr. Giblett then became one of only five women admitted to the second entering class of the new University of Washington School of Medicine. She graduated with honors in 1951. She then entered a residency in internal medicine and there met Dr. Clement Finch, the new chief of the Hematology Division at the medical school. He invited her to apply for a public health fellowship for postdoctoral training in hematology, and she accepted. Her initial studies were on the pathophysiology of hypersplenism and its role in anemia, but two encounters during her fellowship had much more profound influences on Dr. Giblett’s scientific career: She met Dr. Arno Motulsky, who spurred her interest in human genetics and would become a lifelong friend, and she was offered a job in the King County Central Blood Bank (now known as the Puget Sound Blood Center) by its director, Dr. Richard Czajkowski. At the time, Dr. Czajkowski was interested in having someone at the Blood Bank trained in serology and genetics, and he sent Elo to the lab of Dr. Patrick Mollison in the Medical Research Council’s Blood Transfusion Research Unit in London, where she was trained in serology and blood typing by one of the preeminent experts of the day.

Upon returning to Seattle, she was hired as the associate director of the Blood Bank and was appointed clinical associate in medicine at the University of Washington. She spent her entire career with the Blood Center, and it was there that she made her major scientific contributions. Her interest in blood groups blossomed into a broader interest in genetic markers in human blood, which included not only markers found on red blood cells, but also those found on other blood cells and in the plasma. This work led to her identification of several blood group antigens. In the process, she provided scientific evidence to refute the then common practice of segregating collected units of blood on the basis of the race of the donor. This interest also led her to write a book, published in 1969 and appropriately titled Genetic Markers in Human Blood. This book was met with universal praise.

Also in keeping with her interest in genetic markers in blood, Dr. Giblett began using a new method of starch gel electrophoresis that had been developed by Dr. Oliver Smithies to examine polymorphism in plasma proteins, including haptoglobin and transferrin, and to study the physiology of variants of the latter protein. She extended the electrophoresis technique to the study of the activities of polymorphic enzymes in both plasma and blood cells and then used this technique clinically to examine genetic markers in patients being considered for bone marrow transplantation (BMT). One such polymorphic enzyme was adenosine deaminase (ADA), tested from red-cell lysates. In 1972, while testing a child with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) who was being considered for BMT, Dr. Giblett and her colleagues noted that the child had no ADA activity. The parents, who were related, had deficient but not absent activity. Through sheer coincidence, she heard about another SCID patient. She tested the patient and found the patient to also be deficient in ADA activity. The publication of these findings and the suggestion that ADA deficiency could account for the immune deficiency created great controversy in the field of immunology. However, it was not long before a number of other SCID patients were also shown to be deficient in the enzyme, and ADA deficiency was established as the cause of the disease.

This connection between the purine salvage pathway and immune deficiency prompted Dr. Giblett to investigate other enzymes in the purine and pyrimidine metabolic pathways in immune deficiency states, and this led to the discovery of the purine nucleoside phosphorylase deficiency as the cause of T-cell immunodeficiency.

These seminal discoveries, and many others, led to Dr. Giblett’s election into the National Academy of Sciences in 1980. This honor came just one year after she was named director of the Puget Sound Blood Center, an administrative move that led her to close her laboratory. She served as director until her retirement in 1987. Her tenure spanned the period when AIDS was first recognized as a disease and evidence emerged that it could be transmitted by blood transfusion. She often mentioned her consternation at the realization that the life-saving act of blood transfusion, a procedure to which she had devoted much of her career to making safer, could also transmit this deadly disease.

In retirement, Dr. Giblett devoted a great deal of time to her first love: music. She also remained a staunch supporter of the Puget Sound Blood Center — its research program, in particular.

On a personal note, Dr. Giblett left an indelible impression on me when, as a trainee in hematology at the University of Washington, I had the opportunity to rotate on the Blood Center’s Transfusion Service. The scientific rigor with which she addressed clinical problems was extremely impressive. This memory made it an easy choice for me to return to the Puget Sound Blood Center in 2006 when I was asked to direct its research program. Even before I arrived in Seattle, Dr. Giblett contacted me to let me know of her support for the program, and this encouragement continued until the time of her death. Dr. Giblett was an incredible human being, a stellar scientist, and a visionary leader who artfully guided the Puget Sound Blood Center through one of its most trying periods. While she will be greatly missed, her legacy will live on.

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