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Committed virologist, veteran of the Chinese Civil War

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2018 - Spring


She survived a decade of brutal war in China, then came to Yale and helped revolutionize the field of virology

With a powerful combination of grace and steely determination, Gueh-Djen (Edith) Hsiung, PhD, professor emerita of laboratory science, became a pioneer in her chosen field of diagnostic virology. During her long career, Hsiung became known for her uncanny ability to detect and characterize viruses, and became one of the first women to achieve the rank of professor at the Yale School of Medicine.

Hsiung’s path to the laboratory bears the marks of history. She was born in Hubei, China, in 1918, and planned to go to medical school until World War II closed the Beijing school. Instead, she began work testing bacterial and viral vaccines for use in animals at a government facility in Lanzhou. From these early days of her career, she exhibited tenacity that contributed to her later success. Marie-Louise Landry, MD, professor of laboratory medicine and of medicine (infectious diseases) and a close colleague, writing after Hsiung’s death in 2006, recalled a story Hsiung told of her early days in China: “When charged with the transport of a stock virus for rinderpest vaccine without the benefit of refrigeration or dry ice, Hsiung injected the vaccine into a goat and then traveled to her destination for 27 days by truck, with the goat at her side.”

After the war, Hsiung arrived at Michigan State University, where she completed her PhD in microbiology in 1953. Still pursuing her goal of attending medical school in the United States, she was turned down by Yale because she, at age 35, was considered too old. Like many women in science at that time, she took a position as a postdoctoral fellow at Yale, and from there launched her long career at both Yale and its affiliated Veterans Affairs Hospital in West Haven.

She took a position in the laboratory of Joseph Melnick, PhD ’39, a renowned epidemiologist and founder of modern virology, and worked with him on his breakthrough research on poliovirus. In Melnick’s lab, she developed her striking knack for identifying viruses by cytopathic effect (CPE), a technique that later became recognized as the gold standard of diagnostic virology. There she also met and collaborated with Dorothy M. Horstmann, MD, a leader in polio research and the first woman to become a full professor at the School of Medicine in 1961.

In 1960, Hsiung became the first director of the Diagnostic Virology Laboratory at Grace-New Haven Hospital, Yale New Haven Hospital’s predecessor. Hsiung then turned her burgeoning understanding of diagnostic virology into the definitive textbook in the field, Diagnostic Virology, and the first of its four editions was published in 1964. During her career, Hsiung also published more than 240 papers on the subject.

In her work, “she was energetic, precise, very careful,” said John Booss, MD, professor emeritus of neurology at Yale, who was trained by Hsiung in virology as a postdoctoral fellow and worked closely with her. Booss recalled attending a conference on virology with Hsiung. “She went to the microphone to contest a point, and she was quite firm about the position she was taking. And this stuck with me: after that exchange, she said to me, ‘It’s always a battle.’ There would always be people challenging your comments, and challenging your science.”

Her determination laid the foundation for a crucial discipline. In 1967, she became chief of the Virology Research Laboratory at the Veterans Administration Medical Center (VAMC) in West Haven and a professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine at Yale. As a result of her initiatives, the national Virology Reference Laboratory of the Veterans Administration was founded in 1985 at the VAMC in West Haven, and she became its first director.

This laboratory was created to provide viral diagnostic services to VAMCs in the Northeast and beyond, and to research new methods of rapid viral diagnosis. VA hospitals nationwide were able to send frozen virus specimens overnight to Hsiung in West Haven, and receive a diagnosis within 24 hours.

Frank Bia, MD, professor emeritus of medicine (infectious diseases), recalled his first meeting with Hsiung as a fellow doing clinical work at the VA. “I met this very ebullient Chinese woman who asked me who I was and what I was doing,” Bia recalled. “I told her I was looking for the virology lab, and she looked right at me and said, “I’m the virology lab.”

Bia became a longtime collaborator of Hsiung’s, and they published several papers together. “She had a unique ability in her laboratory to combine the interests of both MDs and PhDs so they could actually learn a lot from each other,” Bia said. The result was research directed at the needs of clinicians on the front lines of treating patients. She would ask, Bia said, “What were people struggling with on the wards? What was it they needed? Why develop testing for something that was unnecessary? And she relied upon the MDs to give her that perspective.” This perspective became particularly important at the onset of HIV in 1982, when feedback from MDs drove an understanding of the virus and became vital to delivering care.

Hsiung was a dedicated mentor to generations of trainees, both at Yale and in China and Taiwan. There, she conducted yearly training sessions at National Cheng Kung University, where she was also instrumental in setting up a virology laboratory that became crucial in understanding such regional epidemics as SARS and avian flu.

“She was very supportive of her trainees,” said Booss. Her talent for teaching extended beyond virology to another passion, Chinese cooking, even giving, according to Booss, a course in the cuisine at Yale. She often hosted friends and family at her Branford home, where her parties were legendary, based on anecdotal evidence.

Those parties, however, were unlikely to feature much music. “She thought music was just cacophony; it was just noise to her,” recalled Bia fondly. “She was almost completely left-brained. She only read science. She called antique stores junk shops.”

“Those were fun times,” said Booss.