E.A. Dulmadge: Pursuing a research dream and attacking cancer

Elizabeth Ann Dulmadge – E.A., as she was known to her friends — arrived at Southern Research Institute in 1956 with more than a decade of experience in a clinical microbiology laboratory. She soon became involved in a significant new area of inquiry for the institute: cancer research.

Over several decades, Dulmadge’s work in Southern Research’s anticancer drug screening program helped the Birmingham-based organization make important strides in the battle against a disease doctors still struggle to understand.

To mark Women’s History Month, Southern Research is highlighting the careers of some of the female scientists and technicians who have made meaningful contributions to the institute over its 75 years of scientific investigation.

“E.A. Dulmadge should be an inspiration to many young people today, particularly girls interested in science,” said Art Tipton, Ph.D., president and CEO of Southern Research. “E.A. pursued her dream of conducting research that could help save lives, and her valuable work over many years accomplished that.”

Dulmadge came to the institute after earning a bachelor’s degree in biology from Birmingham-Southern College and working for 11 years as supervisor of the clinical microbiology lab at University Hospital, now UAB.

“I wanted more of a challenge to see what I could do,” she recalled in a 1981 interview to mark her 25th anniversary at Southern Research.

CELL CULTURE WORK

Her sense of timing in 1956 was ideal. After arriving at Southern Research, she spent six months testing antiviral agents for pharmaceutical company Parke-Davis, then transferred to the institute’s fledgling anticancer drug screening program.

She worked alongside Dr. Frank Schabel, whose groundbreaking research with Dr. Howard Skipper and others at Southern Research advanced the role of chemotherapy as an effective cancer treatment and expanded the understanding of how to better counter the disease.

“Dr. Schabel put me in charge of the cell culture work since my background in microbiology was an excellent prerequisite for this type of work,” she recalled.

In those days, pharmaceutical companies were developing large numbers of synthetic drugs, and it was up to Southern Research to test them for the National Cancer Institute. Dulmadge and the team annually screened 5,000 to 7,000 compounds in cell cultures – cells grown under controlled conditions, perfect for experimental studies.

Over the years, she continued her work with cell cultures, investigating the effects of antitumor agents on laboratory-grown tumors and studying cells resistant to anticancer agents. Her inquiries included an extensive look into tumor stem cells, or those cells that give rise to cancer. She also developed effective methods of growing tumor colonies for the screening tests.

ANTICANCER ADVANCES

Dulmadge, who contributed to at least two dozen scientific papers with her Southern Research colleagues, felt a deep sense of accomplishment in the institute’s chemotherapy research.

“I think of how much more we know about cancer chemotherapy now that we did in the beginning of the program,” she said in the 1981 interview. “It’s been a privilege to work here.”

Dulmadge retired in 1992, after 36 years at Southern Research. At her death, she left a majority of her estate to Birmingham-Southern, which created the Elizabeth A. Dulmadge Scholarship Fund in 2004 for students majoring in biology or music.

Southern Research’s anticancer drug expertise has led to the discovery of six FDA-approved medicines that treat the disease. The organization remains a key player in cancer research, having received more than $90 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health over the past two decades.