“Histology, Ms. Swisher”: A Tribute to Billie Strode Swisher

By: M. Lamar Jones, BS, HT/HTL(ASCP)

Billie Strode Swisher….a dear friend, a colleague, an educator, a great mentor, a long successful career!

I first met Billie when I was in Lexington, KY in the early 1980s. I attended the NSH Convention and took a workshop presented by Billie. I liked her accent and her manner of speaking – so precise and with poise! After the workshop I stopped by to introduce myself to her, she asked me where I was from and where did I work. I told her that I lived in Lexington, KY and worked at Good Samaritan Hospital and Pathology Associates. She told me that she was born in Glasgow, KY on a farm. I too had grown up on a farm so we both had some commonality to share with farming.

As time progressed, I learned that Billie was an educator, teaching Histotechology. She was the Chairman of the Histotechnology Examination Committee for the Board of Registry at the American Society for Clinical Pathologists in Chicago, IL. I had a HT training program in Lexington and would carefully critique my students’ blocks and slides before they sent them in to be graded. I asked Billie what a person had to do to participate in the histotechnology grading process at ASCP. She asked me for my address and who my department chairman was, which I gladly shared with her. In the late spring of 1988, my department chair brought me a letter that he had received from Billie asking if I would be able to come to ASCP in Chicago, IL and serve as a block grader for a time or two. I still have the letter filed away and have always been grateful to Billie for offering me this opportunity. I continued to travel to ASCP and grade blocks and slides until 2003, a great honor that I will never forget.

Billie served as the NSH Education Committee Chair, one of the first committees that I got involved with in NSH. Billie served as both the editor and the assistant editor for the NSH Self-Assessment booklets that NSH offered. There had been a call for interested NSH members to participant in writing and submitting good questions and answers to the Education Committee for these booklets. I offered to serve on the committee. Billie gave me this opportunity to be a part of the question and answer submission, but I had to work hard!

I learned a lot about Billie…. her enthusiasm, her knowledge about histotechnology and love for teaching. She was a great educator! In 1959, she began the School of Histotechnology at Georgia Baptist Hospital in Atlanta, GA. She also served as the Assistant to the Director of Anatomic Pathology and the Education Coordinator of the Histotechnology Program. Billie was involved in both the Georgia Society for Histotechnology (GSH) and the NSH. She presented workshops and lectures for both organizations. She was often a speaker at other meetings across the USA and she loved to share her knowledge and expertise.

In 1978, Billie left Georgia Baptist Hospital and the School of Histotechnology and went to work at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta in the Infectious Disease Division. I kept up with her over the years, we talked by telephone and I can still hear her as she would answer, “Histology, Ms. Swisher “. As we would talk, she would ask me about my continued education endeavors, my family and my teaching. We shared many common interests. She knew that I had a great interest in infectious diseases, so she invited me to come to the CDC and spend some time in her department. In January 1991, I went to the CDC and spent a week working with her. At the time there was a lot to do and see at the CDC and I was grateful for the opportunity to spend time with her.

Billie had several scientific publications and one textbook. She authored Pearls, Preventions and Anecdotes in Histologic Technic – The Search for Excellence, in 1997. Billie was very proud of her book. She earned several awards in Histotechnology – she was the first recipient of the Histotechnologist of the Year Award from the Georgia Society for Histotechnology (established in 1978). She received the Histotechnologist of the Year Award from the National Society for Histotechnology as well, in 1986 and the J.B. McCormick, MD Award in 1992. In 2011, one of her past students, Wanda Della Speranza, along with Poly Scientific R&D sponsored the Billie Swisher Lifetime Achievement Award in her honor. The first recipient was Shirley Powell in 2012.

Billie was a very humble lady – she never boasted, gave credit where credit was due, sang in her church choir and was a Christian. One of her hobbies was gardening, which she really loved! She was witty, was a giving, kind person, loved her family, loved her profession, and had humor. She was quite comical at times!

I will always remember the humorous side of Billie with this little story that she shared with me. When she was still at Georgia Baptist, one day she was grossing and on the ledge in front of where she was grossing there was a spider that appeared. She saw the spider, killed it and thought,” I wonder what this would look like under the microscope,” and put it in a specimen container with a specimen and processed it. As she and the pathologist continued to work, she forgot about the spider and the specimen along with the spider was processed. A few days later she remembered the spider, checked the specimen and the slide, and then asked the pathologist about the spider. He replied that he saw some skeletal muscle mixed in with the specimen and had already signed the case out!

I still continued to call and talk with Billie over the years in her retirement – we still talked about old times, histotechnology and she was always interested in what I was doing in my career! I would still see her at some of the Georgia Society for Histotechnology meetings from time to time.

The last time that I talked with Billie was the spring of 2020. I will always cherish our conversations. I will miss those telephone calls, that wonderful accent and the voice that I still hear, “ Histology, Ms. Swisher “ Thank you for the memories Billie!

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