2020 marked a milestone for the friends and loved ones of the Department’s former patient Ellen Read Leeds Sturges. Together, over the nine years since Ellen’s passing from clear cell carcinoma uterine cancer, the cumulative generosity of this vast group contributors made it possible to establish an endowed fund in Ellen’s name.
“El never did anything halfway,” says her lifelong friend and companion of many years David Kountze Sturges, of Southport, CT, where Ellen was also a lifelong resident. “With her tomboy cackle of a laugh, she exuded humor and warmth toward all family and her legion of friends, young and old, of all backgrounds, to share her devotion to her pursuits, with hard work and panache.”
It is no surprise, then, that Mr. Sturges was successful in organizing more than 250 contributors who knew and loved Ellen, and whose lives were touched by hers, to join together to make possible the Ellen Read Leeds Sturges Memorial Lectureship at Yale.
Sturges describes Ellen as a woman who “preferred the casual over pretense, simplicity over sophistication.” “She summoned her artistic talent into full professional being,” he says, building an interior decorating business, Ellen Leeds Interiors. She was active in several prestigious singing groups, one of which performed at the White House for Ronald Reagan. She adored gardening and canoeing and was a passionate hiker of the New England section of the Appalachian Trail.
“Ellen was an exceptional person for the times,” Sturges notes. From the 1960s, she had been a proponent of organic nutrition as fundamental to health, as well as of alternative medicine—long before they came into the mainstream. “It’s terribly ironic that despite it all, her health ultimately failed her,” says Sturges. In 2004 Ellen was diagnosed with clear cell carcinoma, a rare but aggressive form of the disease.
She undertook a seven-year battle for her life, which included two surgeries as well as multiple rounds of radiation and chemotherapy—all under the care of Thomas Rutherford, MD, formerly of Yale, and Peter Schwartz, MD, now the John Slade Ely Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences, and Vice Chair, Gynecology.
“Her form of courage and determination to live set an example of grace for all around, supporting and caring for her,” Sturges says. He considers himself and his fellow contributors part of a greater family of Yale’s Discovery to Cure. Creating a direct connection between the research lab and the patient, this center focuses on new methods for the prevention, early detection, and treatment of women’s reproductive cancers.
“Ellen’s abiding concern, even during her final suffering, was for others rather than herself,” says Sturges, “expecting the battle with this disease to go forward until it was contained and cured, however long it takes.” He sees the fund as a way to turn the tragedy of Ellen’s death into an opportunity to help eventually to “spare women the agony that El endured.”
The fund will make it possible for the department to host an annual lecture in Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences, on research on women’s reproductive cancers and, where possible, clear cell carcinoma ovarian cancer.
“We have been building a strong gynecological oncology program, and have made significant progress,” says Hugh Taylor, MD, Chair of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences. “With some of the leading research scientists in the field, it has been a major focus of the Department to increase the amount of gynecological research and invest in a number of new faculty.”
What the lectureship named for Ellen makes possible, Taylor says, is the chance to foster collaboration. “We are able to bring in leading researchers and clinicians from across the country, to help us understand the latest in the fight against women’s reproductive cancers and clear cell carcinoma.”
Though the fund was completed in early 2020, because of the COVID-19 outbreak, the lectures will likely need to begin virtually. Dr. Taylor says the Department will move forward as soon as possible, and hopes to plan an in-person lecture in the spring, depending on the availability of a coronavirus vaccine.
“We always appreciate that funds such as these—in this case generated through the determination and dedication of David Sturges and Ellen’s many loved ones—can result in more high-quality research and scientific advances,” says Dr. Taylor, “which can help us ultimately to save lives.”