Born in Davoli, Italy, in 1919, Catherine immigrated to Rochester, New York, at the age of 15 months. She graduated from Cornell's College of Agriculture in 1942 and received an MS in 1948.
Ms. Fabricant was ahead of her time in both science and personal stature. She proposed the role of viruses in the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis, basing her theory upon a series of observations that led to the stunning discovery that chickens fed a cholesterol-free diet had an increased risk of developing atherosclerosis when infected with a herpesvirus.
Unfortunately, the academic community rejected her findings. Though her results were published in Science in 1973 and she and her professor-husband presented their findings at scientific meetings, her theories were not taken seriously by a community of established scholars convinced that cholesterol alone was responsible for heart disease.
Despite repeated setbacks, Ms. Fabricant eventually showed that chickens fed a high-cholesterol diet could be protected from developing arterial lesions and tumors by being immunized against herpesvirus. She also believed that a vaccine against the related cytomegalovirus might afford similar protection in humans.
Ms. Fabricant's lack of recognition had multiple causes. She was a woman in a man's world, but she was also a scientist without the expected credentials: she had only a master's degree. She worked in a veterinary college, not a medical school. She was a senior research associate, not a professor. She worked not on a human model, but an animal model - the chicken, of all things. Most important, she posited a theory that was too much at variance with mainstream scientific dogma to be deemed credible.
Dean Edward Melby was among those at Cornell who did recognize Ms. Fabricant's manifest contributions to both science and Cornell. To his enduring credit, Dean Melby strongly supported Ms. Fabricant's work. He even offered her a promotion to full professor if she would consider becoming involved in the teaching program. This held little attraction to Ms. Fabricant, however, and she declined in favor of continuing to spend the vast majority of her time on research.
Thankfully, Ms. Fabricant did live to see her work embraced widely. In 1999, just two years before her death at age 81, an international symposium in Washington focused on the relationship between the herpesvirus and atheroclerosis. Scientists like Weill Cornell Medical School's David P. Hajjar and C. Richard Minick were among the early converts and her strongest supporters. In the end she was given due credit for demonstrating that cholesterol was not the only risk factor in vascular heart disease.