Priscilla A. Schaffer Papers Now Open

By , September 12, 2014
Doctor Priscilla A. Schaffer (left) and associate.

Doctor Priscilla A. Schaffer (left) and associate.

The Center for the History of Medicine is pleased to announce the opening of the Priscilla A. Schaffer papers to researchers.

Priscilla Ann Schaffer was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1941. She received her bachelor’s degree from Hobart and William Smith College in 1964 and her Ph.D. from Cornell Medical College (now Weill-Cornell Medical College) in 1969. After receiving her doctorate, Schaffer took a position at the Baylor College of Medicine and, by the time she was recruited to join Harvard Medical School (HMS) in 1976, was an assistant professor in Baylor’s Department of Virology and Epidemiology. Schaffer joined the HMS Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics and began working at the Sidney Farber Cancer Institute (now the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute) as an associate professor. She received a full professorship at HMS in 1981, but left the school briefly to chair the Department of Microbiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine from 1996 to 2000. Returning to Boston in 2000, Schaffer resumed teaching at HMS and became chief of the Laboratory of Molecular Virology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Schaffer specialized in virology throughout her career, focusing on the study of herpesviridae. Early in her career, she was responsible for the isolation and characterization of a collection of temperature-sensitive mutants of herpes simplex virus 1 and 2, as well as mutants resistant to immune cytolysis and antiviral drugs. She was one of the first in the field of virology to begin study of the molecular basis of the herpes simplex virus. Schaffer was the recipient of multiple awards for her work, including the Elizabeth Blackwell Award in 2007 as well as  awards from the American Society for Microbiology, Harvard Medical School, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Cancer Society.

In addition to her groundbreaking research, Schaffer is remembered for her extraordinary dedication as a mentor to both her students and peers.  Don Coen, HMS Professor of Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology and a former postdoctoral fellow, and later colleague, of Schaffer’s, remembers that she “took training people in her laboratory and being a good mentor far beyond what most scientists do.”1  A memorial penned by Coen and published in the Journal of Virology describes Schaffer as a “stalwart herpesvirologist” and “champion for scientific integrity.”  When it came to guiding trainees in the lab or helping to edit a colleague’s manuscript, she was “always ready with advice and support and, when necessary, a gentle kick in the pants.”2

In 2007, Schaffer left HMS and moved to Arizona where she had long planned to build a house. There she joined the faculty at the University of Arizona and remained involved as a researcher and mentor in that community. She died in 2009 just after the completion of her Arizona home, survived by her mother, four siblings, and her long-time caretaker and friend Madelon Cook. You can watch an oral history interview with Schaffer here.

The bulk of the collection reflects Schaffer’s work as a laboratory research scientist in virology, including grants files and laboratory records, from her career after her arrival at Harvard in 1976.


1. Wickett, S. (2010). Dr. Priscilla Schaffer, leader in study of herpesviruses; at 67. The Boston Globe. Retrieved from
http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/obituaries/articles/2010/02/08/dr_priscilla_schaffer_leader_in_study_of_herpesviruses_at_67
 2 September 2014
2. Coen, D.M. & Enquist, L.W. (2010). Priscilla Schaffer (1941-2009): a Stalwart Herpesvirologist. Journal of Virology, 84 (13). Retrieved from http://jvi.asm.org/content/84/13/6265.full 2 September 2014

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