In an exceptionally productive research career spanning four decades, Louise A. Brinton, M.P.H., Ph.D., made contributions to advance the health of women in the United States and around the world. She retired from Federal service at the end of April 2017.
Dr. Brinton practiced—and taught—hands-on epidemiology, leading field investigations on nearly every continent, from Latin America to West Africa, China to multiple U.S. locales. To each project, she brought a unique curiosity, sense of adventure and love of travel and cultural exchange.
She began her graduate work in anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but quickly switched to epidemiology. In 1976, she came to the NCI, to what is now the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics (DCEG), as a predoctoral fellow. She earned a Ph.D. in epidemiology from The Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health in 1979, and subsequently conducted postdoctoral research at Oxford University in the United Kingdom under the tutelage of Sir Richard Doll, before returning to NCI. In 1984, she was appointed Acting Chief of the Environmental Studies Section, and in 1996 became Chief of the Environmental Epidemiology Branch, later renamed the Hormonal and Reproductive Epidemiology Branch (HREB). In 2016, she was named DCEG’s first Scientific Advisor for International Activities.
“Louise initiated and conducted seminal research studies to identify etiologic factors responsible for breast cancer, and other gynecologic malignancies,” said DCEG Founding Director Joseph F. Fraumeni, Jr., M.D. “Over two decades at the helm of HREB, she shepherded scores of projects from pilot phase, through the development of rigorous protocols, resulting in well-designed, and fruitful studies, many of which will remain in use for the next generation of epidemiologists.”
That body of work is represented in the over 600 peer-reviewed scientific manuscripts she authored, and dozens of book chapters, the majority of which focus on the etiology of breast, endometrial, and rarer gynecologic cancers, as well as male breast cancer, and hormonal factors influencing those malignancies.
When asked which study she is most proud of, Dr. Brinton quickly names the Invasive Cervical Cancer Study in Latin America. Women in this region experience some of the highest rates of cervical cancer in the world. Dr. Brinton and her colleagues set out to conduct the first large-scale epidemiological study of invasive cervical cancer in that part of the world, complete with biological samples and—to the surprises of many—complete sexual histories from both men and women in the study. The team hypothesized that sexual behavior among the men was responsible for the extremely high rates, and they designed a study to identify its contribution.
“She was at the forefront of attempts to identify the viral etiology of cervical cancer,” recalled Robert N. Hoover, M.D., Sc.D., Director of the DCEG Epidemiology and Biostatistics Program, a life-long mentor to Dr. Brinton. “Her efforts laid the groundwork for future studies that, with improved assays, definitively established HPV as the causal agent in cervical carcinogenesis.”
In the various leadership roles she held in DCEG over the years, Dr. Brinton recruited investigators who have become leading experts in the epidemiology of gynecological cancers. Her trainees have gone on to direct research efforts within DCEG, and at leading departments of epidemiology across the country.
In addition to her ambitious research program, and the operation of a thriving Branch within DCEG, Dr. Brinton served on the Executive Board of the Society for Epidemiologic Research, and was elected president of the organization in 1990. She is the recipient of the U.S. Public Health Service Special Recognition Award, the NIH Director's Award for innovative leadership in women's health research, and the H.A. Tyroler Distinguished Alumni Award from The University of North Carolina. The American College of Epidemiology honored her with the 2009 Abraham Lilienfeld Award and in 2015 she received the Career Accomplishment Award from the Society for Epidemiologic Research.
Dr. Brinton has served as a senior editor for Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention, and on the editorial board of several others, including the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Breast Cancer Research, and the International Journal of Epidemiology. She has also been a member of and led many national and international committees to assist in determining future directions of research in cancer epidemiology.