In Memoriam: Elaine M. Smith

Published on February 12, 2021

A portrait of Elaine Smith of the University of Iowa College of Public HealthIt is with sadness and sorrow that we let you know that Elaine M. Smith, PhD, MBA, professor emerita of epidemiology, College of Public Health, University of Iowa, passed away peacefully in Chapel Hill, NC, at the age of 75 on January 21, 2021.

Elaine earned her PhD at the Roswell Park Memorial Institute, State University of New York at Buffalo, NY. She joined the department in 1981 after a postdoctoral fellowship in cancer epidemiology at the University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Together with Drs. Thomas H. Haugen and Lubomir P. Turek, colleagues in the Department of Pathology at the Carver College of Medicine, Elaine was one of the first in 1985 to initiate studies on the molecular epidemiology of human papillomavirus (HPV) infection in cancer of the uterine cervix.

We now know, thanks in part to her studies, that cervical cancer is caused by infection with high-risk types of HPV in almost all cases. Her most important contribution was a series of studies starting in the 1990s that linked infection with those high-risk HPV types that lead to cervical cancer with the causation of a subset of cancers of the head and neck, predominantly those in the rear part of the oral cavity, tonsils and the pharynx.

Furthermore, Elaine and her collaborators were one of the two groups to show that HPV-linked head and neck cancers had a much better prognosis than non-viral cancers associated with cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption, and should be considered a separate etiologic entity. HPV screening in head and neck cancer now is part of the routine diagnostic workup in clinical laboratories.

Among her many interests, Elaine was an accomplished cook, wine connoisseur, yoga aficionado, and above all, a fanatical gardener who did not hesitate to coerce anyone around to get down to it and start pulling weeds. We will miss her.

Lubomir P. Turek

Thomas H. Haugen

Jennifer S. Smith

Robert B. Wallace