Sherman Elias, MD

Sherman Elias, MD

Sherman Elias, MD (July 14, 2014)

Dr. Sherman Elias died at the age of 67 years from complications related to autoimmune hepatitis. Sherman was born on March 21, 1947 in Rome, Italy, where his parents sought refuge in the aftermath of World War II. His father (Cantor Meyer) and mother (Rachel) then emigrated to the United States and settled in Louisville, where Sherman was raised.

His undergraduate work was taken at University of Louisville, followed by graduation from medical school at the University of Kentucky (1972). His ob-gyn residency was taken at Michael Reese Hospital and University of Louisville (1972-76). John T. Queenan, who recently arrived from Cornell Medical College as Chairman, recognized Sherman's academic potential and encouraged a fellowship (1974-1975) at Yale University for genetic pursuits. At Yale, Sherman was greatly influenced by Jeremiah Mahoney and John Hobbins, then pursuing fetoscopy for prenatal detection of genetic disorders then not detectable in any other way (e.g., hemoglobinopathies). After returning to Louisville to complete his training, he became the first Fellow in Reproductive Genetics at Northwestern University Medical School (1976-78). This unit was started just one year before by Joe Leigh Simpson and Alice Martin: thus, Sherman not only trained but helped inaugurate a new program and its laboratory at the nascent Prentice Women's Hospital.Sherman was among the initial cohort of fully trained geneticists who were certified in both Obstetrics and Gynecology and in Medical Genetics. He became certified in 1982 through the very first exam given by the American Board of Medical Genetics. He accrued other exceptional skills. In research he was a recipient of the highly competitive Basil O'Connor Starter Scholar Research Award by the March of Dimes (1981-83). He was one of the few obstetricians/gynecologists to receive a W.K. Kellogg National Fellowship Award (1981-84), beginning a productive collaboration on ethical issues with George Annas.

Sherman was a major contributor to virtually every advance in prenatal genetic diagnosis that has become incorporated into modern obstetrical practice. At Northwestern he also worked with Albert BGerbie performing innumerable procedures for the Children's Hospital genetics unit headed by Henry L Nadler that showed genetic amniocentesis could be safe and accurate. His prior work at Yale was reprised at Northwestern with initiation of a fetal skin biopsy program for genodermatosis, generating the first prenatal detection of harlequin ichthyosis. During those Northwestern years (1976-1986), he was involved in initiating a maternal serum analyte screening program for detecting of neural tube defects. Chorionic villus sampling was introduced. Another pursuit included studies with Alice Martin and Carole Ober involving field studies in Hutterite colonies. These data led to Carole's sentinel work elucidating the relationship between parental HLA haplotypes, mate choice, and fertility and reproductive outcome.

In 1986 Sherman moved to University of Tennessee, as Director of the Division of Reproductive Genetics and Associate Chairman for Academic Affairs and Research, Department Obstetrics and Gynecology. This was the era in which Sherman made considerable technical and diagnostic contributions, often with Lee Shulman. A nationwide collaborative NICHD effort validated the safety and accuracy of chorionic villus sampling. The latter part of the 1980s brought a plethora of molecular technologies; Sherman and colleagues were quick to translate. A transformative accomplishment was being the first to detect fetal trisomy (18) in intact fetal cells recovered by fluorescence activated cell sorting. A year later they and two other groups reported fetal trisomy 21 on the basis of nucleated fetal red blood cells enriched from maternal blood.

In 1986 Sherman accepted a position at Baylor College of Medicine (Houston) as Vice Chairman, holding positions as Professor and Henry and Emma Meyer Chair in Obstetrics and Gynecology and Professor of Molecular and Human Genetics. A NICHD-funded collaborative effort involving national and international colleagues began to optimize fetal cell recovery and to show clinical utility. Although the noninvasive prenatal diagnosis field has now waltzed toward cell free fetal DNA recovery, intact fetal cells for noninvasive diagnosis remained a pursuit of Sherman's and is continuing.

In 1998 he became Chairman at the University of Illinois at Chicago, serving until 2003 as William G Arends Chair; Phillip and Beverly Goldstick Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Professor of Molecular and Human Genetics. In 2003, he took his final academic position as John J. Sciarra Professor and Chair, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Feinberg School of medicine, Northwestern University. It was surely a special privilege to hold the position bearing the eponym of his own first Chairman. Sherman built a strong research and training program and presided over the opening of Northwestern Memorial Hospital's new Prentice Women's Hospital in 2007. Sherman's breadth and knowledge placed him in an ideal position to inculcate genetics in the obstetrical and gynecologic curriculum. He was an indefatigable lecturer, and his writings not only were intended for peer review audiences but to educate the broader obstetrical community.

Less visible to the ob-gyn community is that he helped assure the obstetrician/gynecologist was a pivotal player as medical genetics became organized. As one example, he served on committees that led to establishment of the American College of Medical Genetics, serving as its first Vice President for Clinical Practice (1992-96). His background in ethics almost uniquely qualified him to represent the ob-gyn community in elite forums and committees. His well-deserved reputation was leveraged by numerous publications in the New England Journal of Medicine. Several now seem prescient, for example a 1994 call for generic genetic counseling that anticipated how soon it would become impractical to counsel in detail on each genetic disorder potentially detectable. He contributed to dialogues on the Human Genome Project and on controversies surrounding embryonic research.

Sherman naturally received substantial peer recognition and was called upon to assume many responsible positions. He was a Distinguished Alumnus at the University of Kentucky and received the University Scholar Award at University of Illinois. He served as Chair of the ACOG Committee on Ethics, and its Committee on Genetics. He was a Director of the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecologists. Presidencies included the Central Association of Obstetrics and Gynecology, the Society for Gynecology Investigation, and the American Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Foundation. He served on 9 editorial boards.

His academic oeuvre included 6 books—2 on reproductive ethics and the law; 4 on prenatal genetic diagnosis or reproductive genetics. Four of these volumes were edited, but two were, atypically these days, written by Sherman and one other author. He wrote over 350 articles, chapters, and commentaries, the most recently being a March 2014 commentary in the New England Journal of Medicine. His research was predominantly funded by the March of Dimes and NICHD. He also gained funding for the WRHR K-12 program at Northwestern.

Training and mentorship held a special place for Sherman, in particular honing skills in writing and presentations. A distinguished list of reproductive geneticists emanated from units he and colleagues directed. These former Fellows include Marion Verp, Allan Bombard, Lucas Otano, Carole Meyers, Lee Shulman, Susan Gross, Jeffrey Dungan, Owen Phillips, Chris Gravengood, and Helen Ross.

Sherman leaves his wife: Shelley Frockt Elias, who received both a JD and MPH after having started the Elias family. One son (Benjamin Artman Elias) is a Vice President for Fox Networks in Los Angeles. The other (Kevin Meyer Elias, MD) received his MD from Vanderbilt University, took his residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology at Brigham and Women's Hospital and now is a fellow in gynecologic oncology at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

Submitted by Joe Leigh Simpson

Return to In Memoriam