Stefania Jablonska

BMJ 2017; 357 doi: (Published 15 June 2017) Cite this as: BMJ 2017;357:j2891
  1. Ned Stafford
  1. Hamburg, Germany
  1. ns{at}

Co-discovered human papillomavirus type 5 in skin cancer

Credit: Polish Dermatological Society

In 1950 Stefania Jablonska was faced with a big decision. She was 30 years old and had returned to the Medical University of Warsaw after a year’s training with renowned dermatologist Donald M Pillsbury at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia. Jablonska had been offered two attractive opportunities to further her fledgling career in dermatology.

Career dilemma

One of the offers came from Pillsbury’s team in Philadelphia. They had liked her work and offered her a clinical research position. The other offer came from Warsaw University’s Dermatology Clinic, which was mired in turmoil after the politically motivated arrest of the clinic director and head of the dermatology department, Marian Grzybowski. After Grzybowski’s death in prison, older dermatologists at the university were reluctant to fill the leadership vacuum. Jablonska had only recently received her doctorate and would not be awarded habilitation until the next year. Nonetheless, she was offered the chance to head the clinic and the department.

Many years later she wrote about the dilemma on her website. “Young doctors,” she wrote in Polish, “were longing for science after a severe period of war and occupation, and were asking me for help. They demanded that I accept the top position. The decision to decline a research offer in Philadelphia was very difficult, but it was the only hope of saving the Warsaw Dermatology Clinic.”

She accepted the offer and would stay as the head of dermatology for the next 40 years. She started the process of transforming the clinic into a global leader. Older faculty members left and were replaced with younger dermatologists strongly motivated by clinical science, many of whom went on to become leaders in the specialty.

“Professor Jablonska was very supportive of young, active people and used to push her staff to tackle the outstanding questions in dermatology,” says Marek Haftek, a protégé of Jablonska’s during the 1970s, who now heads the dermatological research laboratory at the University of Lyon in France and is research director at the National Centre for Scientific Research.

“She was an excellent clinician,” Haftek adds, “with encyclopaedic knowledge and an outstanding visual memory. She was demanding, but for the good of her students. She was a wonderful driving force for those who decided to be ‘explorers,’ rather than just workers.”

Jablonska, who also spoke English, German, French, and Russian, opened channels of communication with the international medical research community, despite the fact that Poland was a communist state behind the so called Iron Curtain. Over the years she became an honorary member of nearly three dozen national dermatology societies around the world.

In 1955 she published the first of her many papers in French and German dermatology journals.12 Two years later she published a paper in the British Journal of

Dermatology,3 to be followed over the next half century by dozens more. She would go on be the author of nearly 1000 papers.

International collaborations

Jablonska’s friends and collaborators included sclerosis and scleroderma expert Gerald Rodnan of the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,4 and immunodermatology pioneer Ernst H Beutner of the University of Buffalo, New York, her co-author on dozens of papers,56 including one in 2002 when Jablonska was 82 years old.7

She had especially close relationships with Alfred Marchionini, head of dermatology at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, and, after Marchionini’s death in 1965, with his successor, Otto Braun-Falco. Both men used their connections to help make it possible for Jablonska and her many protégées to travel abroad for training and to attend international conferences.

She also counted among her friends Harald zur Hausen of the German Cancer Research Centre, who admired Jablonska’s work and would go on to share the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for his discovery of human papilloma viruses causing cervical cancer.”

“Professor Jablonska was the ‘first lady’ of international dermatology in the times of the creation of dermatological research,” says Haftek. “Multilingual and proactive, she created an international network of friends in the domain of her excellence—the dermatological science.”

The first of Jablonska’s many citations in The BMJ came in 1963.8 In 1976 British dermatologist Arthur Rook wrote a glowing review of the second edition of her 1965 book, Scleroderma and Pseudoscleroderma.9 Rook noted that Jablonska “has made many important contributions to dermatology, but she is best known for her work in the past 10 years on immunological aspects of the collagen diseases and of the bullous eruptions.”

Papillomavirus and skin cancer

In the early 1970s Jablonska suggested a link between human papillomaviruses and skin cancer in epidermodysplasia verruciformis.1011 She began collaborating with virologist Gérard Orth of the Pasteur Institute in Paris. By the late 1970s the two researchers were producing a steady stream of research papers linking the human papillomavirus type 5 with skin cancer, including a key paper in 1978 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA.12 Later that year they published a paper in Nature, describing viral sequences related to a human skin papillomavirus in genital warts.13

In 1985 Jablonska and Orth received the Robert Koch Award in recognition of their groundbreaking work.

Formative years

Jablonska was born with the name Szela Ginzburg on 7 September 1920 in Warsaw. Her father was an economist and her mother a dermatologist who had trained in Berlin. She started studying medicine at the University of Warsaw in 1937. After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the university was closed. Jablonska moved to Ukraine, at the time part of the Soviet Union, to continue studies at Lviv University, which was home to dozens of Polish professors.

In July 1941, after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, German forces executed more than two dozen Polish professors. Jablonska had to flee again, this time to Kyrgyzstan, also at the time part of the Soviet Union. She continued medical studies at the University of Frunze, now called the Kyrgyz State Medical Academy.

After graduating in 1942, she was required to serve with the Soviet Army in the war against Germany. Her military service ended in the summer of 1943, when she was injured in the Battle of Kursk. During rehabilitation Jablonska “luckily” met “the famous professor Olga Podwysocka” and started studying pathology and then dermatology and venereology. She spent a year at the dermatology department at the Soviet Academy of Sciences in Leningrad in 1945.

Return to Warsaw

On her return to Warsaw in 1946 she began her long affiliation with the Warsaw Dermatology Clinic. After retiring from the clinic in 1990 as professor emeritus, she remained active in research until she was well into her 80s. She served two long stints as president of the Polish Society of Dermatology—from 1962 to 1982 and from 1987 to 1995.

In 1999 her friend and colleague, the French dermatologist Jean Thivolet, wrote a tribute, affectionately describing Jablonska as “the iron lady of Warsaw.”14 He described her as holding a “prominent place” among the founders of immunodermatology, adding: “Despite all the difficulties which her country has known, she has been able to work, train many students, travel the whole world over, and survive all the crises.”

Stefania Jablonska (b 1920, q Kyrgyz State Medical Academy, Kyrgyzstan, 1942), d 8 May 2017


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