It is with great sadness that I announce the passing of Dr. Nelly Auersperg. Dr. Auersperg was an Emeritus faculty member in our Department.
I’m sure that many of you admired and worked with Dr. Auersperg over the years. For those of you who are less familiar with her work and history Drs. David Huntsman and Michelle Woo, who knew Dr. Auersperg well, have written a short biography that I share with you below.
When Dr. Nelly Auersperg joined UBC’s Department of Anatomy in 1968 to start her career as a cell biologist focused on gynecologic cancers, she had already lived an extraordinary life. Her impact since has been immense both through her research into the origins of ovarian cancer and perhaps more importantly her intellectual generosity, profound critical thinking, mentorship and kindness which have shaped generations of students, fellows and other researchers.
Dr. Auersperg’s personal and professional lives were both marked by tremendous adversity which she rose through and by great successes and joys that she shared with colleagues and her family, that included her husband John, her children Maria and Edward and, later, her grandchildren and great grandchildren. Nelly Auersperg né Gutmann was born in Vienna into a successful family of Croatian sugar merchants. When she was a child her family was persecuted brutally by the Nazis and then by the incoming Yugoslavian communist regime, which ultimately murdered her father after a show trial. Nelly survived this and attended medical school in Croatia in 1946, where, in addition to anatomy and physiology, her education included classes on basic Marxism and spycraft. After first spending time in Israel with her mother, Nelly moved to Vancouver in 1950 to join several family members. In an effort to continue her dream of becoming a physician, Nelly applied to, and was rejected by, many medical schools in North America including UBC. She was, however, finally accepted into and completed medical school at the University of Washington, followed by clinical training at the Vancouver General Hospital. Frustrated by the lack of knowledge that underpinned most of medical practice, Nelly pivoted into research with young family in tow, and by 1962, published a single author paper in Nature on the cytotoxicity of malignant effusions. After completing a Ph.D. in cell biology with Cyrus Finnegan in the Department of Zoology at UBC, she assumed a faculty position there and established a research program focused on cancer of the cervix. Her pioneering work on the generation of the first human cervical cancer cell lines with defined differentiation contributed to the discovery by Dr. Zur Hausen in his Nobel Prize winning discovery of the role of HPV in cervical cancer.
Despite the fact that Nelly was a highly regarded, productive and well-funded scientist, she suffered from the chauvinism that was very common in academia at the time and was not treated or supported in a manner that such a prominent researcher might expect. As a result, when a cylinder of concrete fell from the ceiling during renovations of the old Anatomy building on campus and almost hit her in the head, Nelly always joked that it was a message from her department chair at the time. Emblematic of Nelly’s personality, rather than taking this and other slights personally, she rose above them, even keeping the aforementioned concrete cylinder in her office throughout the rest of her career and, finally, as a perseverance keepsake just outside her apartment at Tapestry on UBC’s south campus, her last place of residence.
After spending the first part of her career in the UBC Department of Anatomy, she was forced to retire at the age of 65. Dr. Peter Leung, recognizing the tremendous potential that Dr. Auersperg could bring to the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, engineered Nelly’s recruitment into our department. She re-established her research at the B.C. Children’s and Women’s hospital site and it was during that period that her seminal research into ovarian cancer began. Nelly was the first researcher to study the origins of ovarian cancer using principled scientific methods. She created cell lines from ovarian surface epithelium that are still used widely and in her last papers focused our community on oncogenic potential of the interface between fallopian tube and ovarian surface epithelium. Her research and expansive impact of her mentorship was recognized through multiple awards including being one of the first Terry Fox Cancer Research Scientists (the highest award for cancer researchers in Canada) in 1985, a Terry Fox Medal in 2003, Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine (UK) since 2008, the Doctor of Science Honorary degree by Simon Fraser University in 2008, and Life-time Achievement Awards by the Society for In Vitro Biology (USA), the UBC Faculty of Medicine and the UBC Alumni Association, in 1997, 2007, and 2011 respectively. In 2003, the Nelly Auersperg Award was established in Women’s Health Research at B.C. Women’s Hospital in honour of her exceptional contributions.
In addition to being endlessly curious, Nelly had the sharpest critical thinking capacity of any researcher l have encountered. She was both intellectually intimidating but also humble, and was often intimidated herself. This often led to scenarios where she was unaware of the profound degree to which she impressed any researcher she interacted with. From Nelly, all those she mentored learned how to pursue research with integrity and purpose. I consider myself blessed to be one of many past and current members of our Department and the broader research community who benefitted from working with or learning from Nelly. Dr.’s Cal Roskelley, and Michelle Woo are two notable graduates from the Auersperg Laboratory who now lead in our academy with the same rigor, kindness and good humour Nelly was famous for. Nelly’s long standing technologists Clara Salamanca and Sarah Maines- Bandiera joined OVCARE after her retirement and provided essential technical expertise and fastidiousness that enabled much of OVCARE’s successful laboratory research. British Columbia is now well known for impactful gynecologic cancer research. These successes were built off the foundational research of Dr. Nelly Auersperg and the model for perseverance and integrity in research she provided.
Many of you will have stories from interactions or conversations with Nelly, some will be strange and perhaps hardly not believable in any other context. Please share them by emailing Dr. David Huntsman or Dr. Michelle Woo as we would like to capture them in a larger piece written to celebrate Nelly’s impact on our Department and our lives.
This short piece is intended to inform our community of the sad event of her passing but also to draw out stories and anecdotes from many of you who knew Dr. Auersperg. These will then be featured in a larger piece to be shared through our Gynecologic Cancer Initiative website.
Interim Department Head