Francis Havas (August 26, 2004)
Francis Havas, Professor Emeritus of Microbiology and Immunology at Temple University School of Medicine, passed away on August 26, 2004. She was born in Vienna, November 26, 1915. She completed high school and began her college studies in Vienna, transferring to the University of Prague. With the rise of the Nazis, whom she fervently opposed, she moved to the University of Lyon in France. As the climate in Europe became more uncomfortable, she obtained a visa to the United States, where she obtained a degree in Organic Chemistry from Columbia University, and a Ph.D. in Bacteriology from Lehigh University, in Bethlehem, PA. Her first professional position was as Research Associate at the Institute for Cancer Research in Fox Chase. In 1959 she accepted a position as Assistant Professor at Temple, where she rose through the ranks to become Professor. She retired in 1984.
Francis was well trained, with a strong background in chemistry. The trend in the early 1960s when she started her research was to approach immunology with chemical tools, so she was at the cutting edge in many ways. There were three main themes that were the subject of her research:
1) Examining a fundamental property of immune systems: tolerance. As the Nobelist, Sir Peter Medawar, set forth: the conundrum of the immune system was telling “self” from “nonself.” We are tolerant of our own tissues; our bodies do not make robust immune responses to ourselves, except in pathological conditions termed “autoimmunity.” What Francis observed was that, under certain conditions of immunization, a foreign substance that would normally induce an immune response could be tolerated. She published several widely recognized papers defining the conditions for tolerance induction.
2) Examining generalized immunosuppression of normal immune responses that occurred in tumor-bearing mice. She documented the phenomenon, and probed possible mechanisms for this depression, including extracted factors from the tumor, and she defined which cells in the immune system had depressed function.
3) Involving something called “mixed vaccines” or “mixed toxins” for treatment of tumors. At the turn of the last century (1900), a physician at New York Memorial Hospital, William Coley, had shown that mixtures of two kinds of killed bacteria could cause tumor regression. One was Serratia marcescens, and the other the familiar Streptococcus that causes sore throats. As early as 1954, Francis was a co-author on a paper investigating properties of extracts of one of these organisms. In 1958 she was the first author on two papers in which mixed bacterial toxins were used to treat sarcomas in mice.
This work expanded over the next several years, and was the subject of her first papers as head of her own laboratory at Temple in 1960. Near the end of her career she returned to these toxins, and received permission to use them in humans in a study carried out with a clinician at Temple. Positive responses were obtained in several patients with non-small lung cancers that were refractory to other treatments. On a visit to China in the late 1980s, Francis entered into a collaboration where she arranged to have her mixed vaccines tried systematically in patients with liver cancer, a major problem in that country. Again, encouraging results were obtained in a small group of patients. She had great enthusiasm for this work, and felt it held significant promise in cancer therapy.
At this point, which was a number of years after she took emeritus status, she avidly pursued getting a pharmaceutical company interested in producing the mixed toxins, and testing them further. It turned out that not all Serratia or Streptococci had equal anti-tumor activity. Early on, she had screened many different isolates of each type of organism, and carefully preserved the strains that yielded positive preparations. She felt she had the best quality and most active preparations in the world, and persevered in trying to keep these preparations alive for the benefit of humanity.
Francis did not have an easy life. She escaped from the cauldron of World War II in Europe, and had to struggle to become an independent scientist. Conditions were difficult for women in the workplace in the pre-affirmative action, pre-woman’s liberation movement years. Francis had a career and a family at a time when it was very uncommon for women to contemplate, much less implement, both. She had to struggle to fulfill her vision of what she wanted for herself, but she achieved it. She was a highly respected full Professor, with her own laboratory, who carved out a scientific niche for which she was internationally recognized.
On the personal side, she was an unwavering advocate for justice and human rights. She did not hesitate to challenge authority, perhaps because of her experiences in Europe, where the fascists claimed all power, but were illegitimate. Her life retained a European flavor, and she renewed her old world ties by traveling back many times for sabbaticals, and every year for hiking and skiing vacations in the mountains.
Over the years Francis frequently attended meetings of the Eastern Pennsylvania Branch. She was a friend and colleague to many of us. We will miss her presence and her lively and inquiring mind.
Toby K. Eisenstein, Ph.D.
Temple University School of Medicine