Her Island History: 100 Years of Tenacious Island Women

Lois Maltais shares the story of her life, including her career in the National Guard and at Jackson Laboratory, and her contributions to the study of anorexia nervosa.

Oral History:

Oral History Transcription:

Lois Maltais
February 25th, 2020
Interviewed by Raney Bench

RB: It’s great to have you with us to talk about your time in the National Guard and at the Jackson Laboratory. We started out by saying that you were born in Waterville, and came to the island about fifty years ago and fell in love with it.

LM: I came to the island about fifty years ago, primarily because of the beauty of the island, and also because of the Jackson Laboratory. I had majored in animal and veterinary sciences at the University of Maine, and thought that the Laboratory would be a perfect place to come because I am an outdoorswoman and love to hike and ski and fish and whatnot. The island provided me [with] not only an opportunity to work with the Jackson Laboratory, but also to enjoy the out-of-doors, which I so love to do. Working at the laboratory, I started in 1972, and realized that I needed more in my life besides the laboratory, so I decided to join the Maine Army National Guard, the 112th Air Ambulance unit as a helicopter medic. I went off to Fort McClellan, Alabama, for my basic training, and was awarded the Honor Trainee Award for my leadership skills during basic training. I then went on to noncommissioned officer school here in the state of Maine, and a couple of years after that, was selected to be Soldier of the Year. I competed with men from all over the state, and became the first woman to receive the award. That was in 1983. As a flight medic, I thoroughly enjoyed flying all over the state as well as over to Fort Drum for our annual training. We would do rescue work here on the island, Cadillac Mountain as well as Katahdin, and various places around the state.

RB: You said that you were serving as LifeFlight at the time, in addition to other rescue services?

LM: We were the only rescue service in the state at the time, other than the Coast Guard, which serviced, you know, the ocean. But we were the only LifeFlight helicopter in the state of Maine.

RB: Car accidents, hiking accidents … floods, fires?

LM: Yes, whatever was needed. We would have to get in so many flight hours per month, and if there weren’t an emergency called in — we were on-call 24/7 — we would have to record and do the medevac missions as well as getting our training in Bangor. We had what was called the “deep woods” out beyond Bangor, and we did a lot of night flying and pretend-rescue work out there. We would play as patients as well as our own military occupation skill of being a medic. So then, I rose through the ranks, became a platoon sergeant for the 112th medical company, the first woman to receive that position in the National Guard, in the 112th. My platoon leader was starting up a new platoon called the “Air Traffic Control” and asked if I would serve as sergeant of that, which afforded me another opportunity for a promotion. After a couple of years of training in air traffic control, I finally was awarded the Master Sergeant rank, and went off to be the first sergeant in that platoon. But I missed flying, I did miss being in the air, so after five years of being in the Air Traffic control, I returned to being a medic, and retired as a helicopter medic. But back then, in the early years of the 80s, there were very few women in the National Guard, and those of us who rose in the ranks, y’know, the State realized that women were trailblazers.

RB: Did you feel like you were a trailblazer at the time?

LM: No, I didn’t, I just enjoyed what I was doing and I didn’t consider … I felt like I was part of the platoon, part of the company. I didn’t consider myself a ‘woman’; I felt like I was part of the team. I never felt that I was unusual, I guess.

RB: Or that you had to fight extra obstacles to get your promotions?

LM: Yeah. One of the things, working at the Jackson Laboratory, the state was recognizing employers who had National Guard members in their units. The National Guard wanted to educate the employers about the National Guard people who were in various units around the state, and so they would go to employers and honor them for supporting the National Guard members when they went off for their two-week training. Two weeks, in addition to our vacation time and our sick time, two weeks from a laboratory when you’re doing research was a lot to ask. Y’know, the staffing at the laboratory, to grant another two weeks as vacation time.

RB: So you didn’t have to use it as vacation time?

LM: No, I didn’t, it was separate. The NG realized that it placed a burden on the employers, to allow us to go off to our two weeks’ training, so they came to the various employers and recognized them. The State General came to JAX and recognized the Laboratory for supporting our endeavors in the National Guard.

RB: How many NG members worked at the Laboratory?

LM: There were about ten that worked at the NG. Back in the late 80s, when Desert Storm was going on, two or three individuals had to take a leave of absence for about a year to go off to Desert Storm. I was in an air traffic control unit, so I was not deployed to Desert Storm, fortunately in some ways because some of my platoon members did come back with severe health issues from the burning air fumes and whatnot. There was a woman general who realized that there was not a women’s memorial down in Washington, DC, for servicewomen, and so back in 1995, they decided to build a memorial for servicewomen, which is still there, of course. More and more women are being recognized at this memorial for their service to the country. And so I was selected as a field representative to get women from all over the state to submit their stories to the memorial. There are six or seven women who did go down to the groundbreaking as well as the dedication of the memorial.

RB: That must have been interesting, to talk to other women who had served, and hear their stories.

LM: Oh, it was amazing, especially women of World War II. To hear their stories, to see them, to interact with them — it was just amazing. There was a woman here who was a WASP [Women Army Service Pilots], a woman pilot, who transported planes to Europe during WWII. And of course, their stories were never told. It’s really nice that the memorial now has that history to show the importance of women throughout our country and the military over the years. Especially now that women are able to be in combat, and do the things that they were not allowed to do, even back fifteen or twenty years ago. I did retire in 1997 and got an honorable discharge.

RB: Wonderful. And all that time, you were doing that, you were also at the Lab?

LM: Yes, I was also at the Lab! I first started out working in immunology back then. We didn’t have computers or calculators; all we had were “punch-in-the-numbers, turn-the-crank,” so things were pretty… I mean, over the thirty-eight years that I worked at the Jackson Laboratory, to see how far we’ve come. We now have computers, and databases to share information, and it was wonderful to start when there was so little, and to progress to what we now have today. So I started out in immunology, and I was drawn to the mutations that were occurring in the mouse colony, the mouse production facility, so I switched to characterizing mouse models for human disease, working with Wes Beamer, and also Eva Eicher, who now lives in Tremont. She was doing sex determination. I worked a little bit with Eva Eicher, but my primary focus was on the animal models in endocrinology, specifically the thyroid gland.

One of my friends who worked at the Laboratory had an interesting animal model that she thought I might further characterize for her. She mapped the particular area where the gene might be located, and so I asked Wes Beamer, my supervisor, if I could do a side project in his laboratory working on this animal model. It was called “anorexia” because it was dying of starvation at an early age. I did the preliminary characterization of the animal model, and published the results in the Journal of Heredities. About five years after I published it, a predoctoral student came to work at the Laboratory. She was from Sweden, and she found the anorexic mutation quite interesting, and wanted to pursue that for her doctoral thesis. Once she completed her doctoral thesis, she published the report, and then started a laboratory in her city of Stockholm, Sweden, and spent thirty years further characterizing the model. Ten years after she started her laboratory, a predoctoral student came to her lab, and because her sister suffered from anorexia nervosa, she — the predoctoral student — did her doctoral thesis. Today, forty years later, she’s still working on the model, and finding out many, many things beyond just what you would think would be a brain disorder. It actually impacts just about all the metabolic processes of the body.

RB: I’m fascinated because I think of anorexia as a human condition that impacts body image, and social constraints and realities around it. So to learn that there’s a biological component that affects other species is really fascinating; it’s not something that would have occurred to me. Has it been tracked in other species beyond mice?

LM: That I don’t know; over the years, once I left the Laboratory, I continued to search the databases, what’s called “PubMed,” the scientific literature, to see what advances had been made on the anorexic model. But I limited it to mice. I’m sure it exists in other animals. In fact, in deer, there’s a condition — just in the news about a month ago, the State game wardens were concerned about wasting disease in deer. They have a starvation-type condition, where they get emaciated. So that’s the only animal that I’ve focused on. I used to raise Japanese deer here on the island; my grandfather raised deer. So I grew up…

RB: For food?

LM: For his own pleasure. And for food — he gave me a breeding pair, and I had a little farm in Seal Cove, and raised the Japanese deer for about twenty years. I did it for a food source as well as the wild characteristics. They’re not like fallow deer, that you can tame — they keep their wild characteristics.

RB: You must have to have a lot of space for that.

LM: A couple of acres. Yes, I had a herd of about five or eight. At Christmastime, the children would come, and they would call them “Santa’s reindeer.” They would come and, y’know, see the deer and feed them.

RB: Have you visited the lab in Sweden?

LM: No, and in fact, it’s going to be forty years since I published on the anorexic model. I do want to contact Dr. Nilsson and see if I could come and visit her lab, yes. That would be a great anniversary.