Dr. Elo Giblett’s Legacy

March 13, 2015 at 2:10 pm

Dr. Giblett was an incredible human being, a stellar scientist, and a visionary leader who artfully guided [Bloodworks Northwest] through one of its most trying periods.

-Dr. Jose Lopez

eloMany of the aspects of blood donation and transfusion that we take for granted today would not be possible without the pioneering work of Dr. Eloise “Elo” Giblett.

Born in Tacoma in 1921, young Elo excelled at the violin.  She didn’t take an active interest in science until college, first studying English at Mills College before transferring to the University of Washington to receive a BS in Bacteriology (now known as microbiology) in 1942.

With World War II in full swing, she joined the Navy WAVES as a medical technician. Her degree landed her a position in the clinical laboratory of the U.S. Naval Hospital in San Diego, and it was here that she was published in her first scientific publication after she found that it was possible to diagnose meningococcemia on a stained blood smear.

Elo went on to earn her M.S. in Microbiology and graduated with honors as just one of five women in a class of 52 in the second class of the University of Washington School of Medicine in 1951. She began a residency in internal medicine, but the chief of UW’s Hematology Division encouraged her to apply for a public health fellowship in hematology.

Around this time, Dr. Richard Czajkowski, director of King County Central Blood Bank (now Bloodworks Northwest) wanted someone at the Blood Bank trained in serology and genetics, and decided Dr. Giblett was the perfect candidate. After hiring her in 1954, he sent her to London to train in serology and blood typing in the Medical Research Council’s Blood Transfusion Research Unit.

Between 1955 and 1967, Dr. Giblett advanced in rank at the UW Medical School from Clinical Associate to Clinical Professor of Medicine, also serving as Associate Director and Head of Immunogenetics at King County Central Blood Bank. In 1967 she was named a Research Professor of Medicine at UW, a position she held for two decades concurrent with her work at King County Central Blood Bank.

Bloodworks Northwest’s Chief Research Officer Dr. Jose Lopez wrote of her,

The scientific rigor with which she addressed clinical problems was extremely impressive.

The research she did in this period helped make blood transfusions safer and more effective. Her focus on the genetic markers found on red blood cells, other blood cells, and in plasma led to her identification of several blood group antigens, as well as her book, Genetic Markers in Human Blood, met with universal praise. The ELO antigen is named after her.

Her work with genetic markers had civil rights implications as well: Dr. Giblett provided scientific evidence to refute the (then common) practice of segregating collected units of blood on the basis of the race of the donor.

It also led to better understanding of the immune system. Dr. Giblett discovered the first known immunodeficiency disease, called adenosine deaminase (ADA) deficiency, in 1972. Her research on transplantation immunity showed bone marrow transplantation could be used to to treat leukemia, saving many lives.

Dr. Czajkowski retired in 1979, and Dr. Giblett closed her lab to take his position as Acting Director and then as Executive Director of the Blood Bank in 1980, the same year she was elected into the National Academy of Sciences.

This era proved to be one of the most challenging times for blood centers as the AIDS epidemic gripped the world in panic. Dr. Giblett defined policy on how to screen donors before H.I.V. was identified or research showed it could be spread by blood transfusion; the precedent she set ensured that the blood supply is safe today.

Dr. Giblett retired in 1987, keeping busy with medical matters and her first love, the violin, until her death in 2004 at 88.

Elo Giblett’s legacy lives on. As a tribute to Elo, Bloodworks Northwest set up the Elo Giblett Society to support early stage investigators; supporters make a gift every year to support up-and-coming researchers who might not otherwise get the funding they need to do critical work.

To learn more about the Elo Giblett Society, contact Cheryl Angle at CherylA@BloodworksNW.org or (206) 568-3611.