Eloise Giblett

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Eloise R. Giblett (January 17, 1921 – September 16, 2009)

She was a genetic scientist and researcher, who died in Seattle, Washington on September 19, 2009. Dr. Giblett (or ‘Elo’, as she was called) was a research professor of medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle (Division of Hematology), a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and also served as the Executive Director of the Puget Sound Blood Center in Seattle. The author of over 200 research papers, she also wrote the esteemed tome on Genetic markers, ‘Genetic Markers in Human Blood’. (Published by Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford, England, 1969). She spent the majority of her career at the Puget Sound Blood Center in Seattle, WA (1955–1986), beginning as a hematologist and attaining the position of Executive Director in 1979, a position she held until her retirement in 1986.

Her numerous medical accomplishments include discovering the first immunodeficiency disease: adenosine deaminase deficiency. She identified and characterized numerous blood group antigens (including the ‘Elo’ antigen, named after her). Her work paved the way for the emergence of safe red cell transfusions. She also applied her understanding of red cell protein polymorphisms to genetic linkage analyses, was senior author on the paper that demonstrated the feasibility of unrelated marrow transplantation for leukemia, and was an early supporter of bone marrow donation.

Early Days[edit]

Elo was born in Tacoma, Washington in 1921 and moved frequently, as her father worked for the railroad, and his position required frequent traveling. After many moves, the family settled in Spokane, WA, where Elo’s father accepted a permanent position with the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, and the family settled in one location. It is in Spokane where Elo received her early education, and was trained in singing, dancing and the violin. Her Mother, Rose, held a secret desire that young little ‘Eloise’ would become the next Shirley Temple of the era. From her very early childhood, Elo was especially bright and eager to learn. Her older brother, Harry, was three years her senior, and only trumped Elo once, when she proclaimed she could spell any word in the English language. Harry responded, “Well, then, spell ‘Europe’, and Elo was flummoxed.


Elo’s primary and secondary education took place in Spokane, where she attended and graduated from Lewis and Clark High School in 1938 (at the top of her class). She was only 16 when she earned a scholarship to Mills College in California, and spent her first two collegiate years there. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and as the United States began its World War II participation, Elo joined the Navy WAVES. She spent a year working in a Navy medical lab in San Diego, CA. She was discharged from the Navy when her father became ill and she returned home to care for him. After his death, she used the GI Bill to attend the University of Washington, where she earned a degree in Bacteriology in 1946. She went on to continue her education there, from September, 1946 through August, 1947, where she was enrolled as a graduate student, taking advanced courses in Microbiology as well as Embryology and Comparative Anatomy. She also taught microbiology laboratory procedures to students with majors in science (mainly pre-med) and worked on her Master’s thesis.

After obtaining her master's degree, Elo applied to and was accepted into the University of Washington Medical School, class of ’51. She was one of only a few women in the Medical School at that time (only the second year of its existence) and she graduated at the top of her class. However, this accomplishment was not publicly noted, as during that era, it was not appropriate for a woman to have outshone her male medical school peers. Elo was informed that she was the top graduate by one of her professors. After graduation Elo was pleased to discover her request for an internship at Harborview Hospital had been accepted, where she served as an intern from 1951 to 1952. This was followed by a residency in Internal Medicine at Harborview from 1952 to 1953.

From 1953 to 1955, Elo was awarded a Public Health Fellowship for post-doctoral research in Hematology. She worked with Clem Finch, a very energetic transfer from Harvard with an interest in all aspects of hematology, particularly iron metabolism.

Career in Blood Banking[edit]

After completing her fellowship, Elo was sent to London to work with Dr. Patrick Mollison at the Medical Research Council’s Blood Transfusion Research Unit in London, where she learned about Blood Banking. Upon returning to Seattle, she was hired as the associate director of Puget Sound Blood Center (which was then called the King County Blood Bank) and was appointed clinical associate in medicine at the University of Washington.[1] She spent her entire career with the Blood Center where she was Associate Director from 1955 to 1979 and Executive Director until retirement in 1987 [2]

The Blood Bank was established in Seattle In 1942, during WW II. The citizens of Seattle recognized the need for a blood bank to take care of hospital patients and to face the fear of possible bombing of Seattle by the Japanese. The Seattle area had numerous military installations as well as the Boeing airplane company and several nearby shipyards. The King County Central Blood Bank was incorporated in May, 1944 and Elo began her career there in 1955.

Scientific Collaboration[edit]

Throughout her career, Elo worked with some of the most notable and talented scientists of her era, collaborating with some of the following: Arno Motulsky, Oliver Smithies (Nobel laureate), Alexander (Alec) Bearn, Arthur Steinberg, Dick Rosenfield, Jim Neel, Eldon Sutton, Curt Stern, Kay Wilson, Victor McKusick, Ernie Beutler, Stan Gartler, Ernie Huehns, Walter Bodmer, John Cairns, David Weatherall, Henry Kunkel, Hugh Fudenberg, Don (E. Donnall) Thomas (also a Nobel laureate), and Newton Morton. Many of her papers and presentations were co-authored with these individuals and she would often credit them for their accomplishments.

Discoveries-Genetic Markers[edit]

Elo made her notable discovery of Adenosine Deaminase and Immune Deficiency in 1972. During the period when bone marrow transplantation was becoming a life-saving procedure, it was customary to determine the genetic markers in the blood of donor and recipient. They were then used as indicators to determine the source of the blood in the recipient’s body during and after the recovery period. Using blood samples from a young girl, Elo deduced that the child’s immune defect might be due to the absence of ADA activity, and began a quest for blood from other patients with immunodeficiency disease. The resulting research permitted Elo to discover and document her discovery.

One of Elo’s other notable discoveries was Purine Nucleoside Phosphorylase and T Cell Immunodeficiency in 1975. Her discovery of the necessity of ADA for normal immune function prompted her to believe that deficiencies of other enzymes associated with purine and pyrimidine metabolism might cause additional forms of immune dysfunction. In early 1975, Drs Arthur Ammann and Louis K. Diamond in San Francisco sent a specimen from a 5-year-old girl with lymphopenia and chronic infection. Although she had virtually no T-cells, her B-cells were said to be present and functional.

AIDS Crisis[edit]

One of the more challenging aspects of Elo’s career was her involvement in the HIV (AIDS) crisis as it pertained to Blood Banking. Sometime in late 1981, a colleague of Elo’s attended a meeting in Washington DC where it was announced that a strange new disease with severe lymphopenia and immunodeficiency had been diagnosed among a group of gay men (then referred to as ‘homosexuals’) in two or three large cities. Some of the infectious disease experts at that time, suspected that the disorder might be transmissible by blood as well as by sexual contact, and therefore could have some association with blood transfusion. This possibility was enhanced a few months later in 1982 when a number of young men with hemophilia were found to be developing the typical signs and symptoms of what came to be called AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency disease). It was considered that the possibility that these patients might be gay (‘homosexual’), and feared that their many exposures to blood and plasma were at fault. Furthermore, in New York City and San Francisco, a group of heroin addicts were also contracting the disease, increasing the likelihood of a blood-borne agent. Blood Banks and the Red Cross responded to the threat by discouraging donations from homosexuals and subsequently barring all males who had had more than one male sex partner. Both the newspapers and television reporters questioned these actions. At first, there was a sense that this was being unfair to the homosexual population. However, as more became known about the fatal consequences of the disease, and as the evidence piled up supporting the possibility of disease transmission through blood transfusion, it was suggested that the possibility of the very act of donating blood, let alone receiving it, might be enough for infection to occur. Elo spent a lot of time trying to allay fears about the hazard of giving blood and she followed as closely as possible the information about the incidence of the disease in previously transfused patients. Initially, the data was reassuring, but then additional research unearthed more significant facts.

The belief during that period, was that the incubation period of AIDS was probably about the same as other transfusion- transmitted diseases such as hepatitis B, which was about 2 to 6 months, certainly no longer than a year. However, a test for the AIDS antibody became available in 1985, making it possible to identify past recipients of blood from donors now found to be virus carriers. The test was set up at the Seattle Blood Bank as soon as it became available, and Elo found that she could verify what research studies were indicating, namely, that the incubation period could be as long as 10 years or more. From previous calculations, it had been assumed that the potential rate of AIDS transmission from healthy unpaid blood donors in Seattle and its environs was about one in a million, when the actual rate was more like one in 4000. It became clear that some of the patients who had received blood transfusions on multiple occasions were now virus carriers or actually suffering from AIDS symptoms. Most of these recipients had died of their underlying disease (mainly leukemia) before developing typical AIDS.


It was during this time that Elo decided to retire from the Blood Center, and she retired in 1986. She devoted her remaining years to playing the violin and contributing to various musical groups, playing in several string quartets. She was a Co-Founder of the Music Center of the Northwest, and contributed to them until she died.


In 2011, the Elo Giblett Endowed Professorship in Hematology was established at the University of Washington. This professorship was created by combining an amount of money left by Elo to the University and an additional funding from Elo’s niece, Leslie Giblett. The first recipient of this professorship was John Harlan, MD. This professorship will enable the University to attract and retain talented medical professionals in Hematology and keep Elo’s legacy alive. Bibliography: NY Time Obit www.nytimes.com/2009/09/24/health/research/24giblett.html Article in Hematology www.hematology.org/Publications/Hematologist/2010/4853.aspx Article in the Lancet www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/.../PIIS0140-6736(10)60038-4 Elo’s unpublished autobiography – property of Leslie E. Giblett Britannica online www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1572596/Eloise-R-Giblett