Published in The Washington Post on Apr. 9, 2017
Dr. EMMA SHELTON Retired research biologist at the
National Cancer Institute and pioneer in the field of cellular
biology, died March 29, 2017 at her home in Bethesda of
complications from Alzheimer's.
She was 96. Born in 1920, Emma Shelton was one of
those rare individuals who knew at an early age what she
wanted to do in life. At a time when professional opportunities for women were greatly
limited, she decided she wanted to be a scientist after visiting her ceramic chemist father's
lab at age nine. She persevered on that path, earning a BS in Bacteriology at the University
of Maryland (1941) and an MA in Zoology at George Washington University (1946), the latter
while working full time as a cytology technician at the National Cancer Institute's Laboratory
of Biology. After a year of study at the University of Chicago, she earned a PhD in Cell
Biology at Brown University (1949), becoming the first woman awarded a full scholarship for
doctoral studies by NCI. In 1949, Dr. Shelton joined NCI as a research biologist and
remained there until her retirement in 1978. Following her retirement, she became Secretary
and Executive Director of the American Society for Cell Biology (1978-81). During her long
tenure at NCI, Dr. Shelton was one of the first women to head her own lab, conducting
path-breaking research into the causes of cancer.
Her niece recalls visiting her lab in the late 1950s and being shown the first Siemens
electron microscope in use at NCI, which greatly advanced biologists' ability to analyze cells
and their components. Dr. Shelton published widely, and her works were cited in many
studies conducted in the United States and abroad. In 1964, Dr. Shelton spent one year at
l'Institut Louis Pasteur in Paris, France, exchanging knowledge about research methods with
cell biologists in Europe and Japan. She traveled to numerous professional conferences and
had a network of colleagues that spanned the globe. She served as a mentor and inspiration
to many students, technicians, and aspiring scientists and professionals who were fortunate
to know or work with her.
She also was a strong role model for her niece, who admired her professional
accomplishments as much as her never-say-die approach to life - such as chopping wood in
her seventies and traveling the world on countless nature tours and other adventures. Upon
her retirement from NCI in 1978, Dr. Shelton was awarded the Public Health Service's
Superior Service Award "for fundamental contributions to an understanding of biological
organization at both the cellular and molecular levels."
After retirement from NCI and the ASCB, Dr. Shelton remained an avid learner and intrepid
traveler. With her good friend and former colleague, Dr. Florence Kate Millar, Shelton
retraced the path of the Old Silk Road in China by train and bus just a few years after the
People's Republic of China opened its doors to foreign visitors. At age 68, she and Millar
trekked in the Himalayas, taking pride in being the only members of their group not to ride
donkeys provided for four-legged transportation. Dr. Shelton was active in the Montgomery
County Democratic Party and the Audubon Naturalist Society, and she supported many
nonprofit charities and organizations working for a more just society and healthier planet.
She had a passion for nature and was an accomplished bird watcher, taking part in
numerous "Bloomin' Birdathon" bird counts through ANS. She also was a devoted gardener
and dedicated genealogist, publishing a book about her great-great-great-great-grandfather,
William Winchester, who laid out the town of Westminster, Maryland, in 1764 (Historical
Society of Carroll County, MD). Dr.
Shelton was predeceased by her parents, Dr. George Reed Shelton and Eva Alexander
Shelton and by her brother, John Alexander Shelton.
She is survived by her dear friend, Dr. Florence Kate Millar of the home in Bethesda; nephew
John Thomas Shelton and wife, Wendy; niece Joanna Reed Shelton and husband Richard
Erb; and great-nephews Reed Shelton and Christopher Shelton and their families. Members
of her extended family and large circle of friends also survive her.
The family greatly appreciates the compassion and dedication shown by Dr. Shelton's
caretakers, particularly Sheba Ball, Aisha Bah, Fatmata Bah, and Taibu Daramy, and by the
entire staff of Montgomery Hospice.
There will be no services, although a celebration of Dr. Shelton's life will be held at a later
The family asks that memorial contributions in Emma's name be made to the Audubon
Naturalist Society, 8940 Jones Mill Rd, Chevy Chase, MD 20815
(www.audubonnaturalist.org) or the Southern Poverty Law Center, 400 Washington Avenue,
Montgomery, AL 36104 (www.splcenter.org).