Born in Florida, Calista Post Eliot and her family moved to Portland when she was a child. Her father first worked as a secretary at the YMCA and ran a businessman's lunchroom there. Later, he headed the Audubon Society and wrote two nature books, Birds of the Pacific Coast and Forest Trees of the Pacific Coast. He also wrote Trees of Reed about the trees on Reed's campus.
Although her last name was Eliot, Calista is not a blood relation to Thomas Lamb Eliot, who was instrumental in establishing Reed College. However, she is related by marriage; her sister was married to the grandson of Thomas Lamb Eliot.
Calista grew to be a petite woman with light brown hair. A writer once described her eyebrows as "arched into a look of permanent surprise"; she penciled in her eyebrows because she was born without them.
"That only made her look more pert," said Warner A. Eliot, Calista's nephew, who often visited her as a child. "She was gentle, but she said her piece when she had to," he said. "She was very diplomatic."
Calista was taught at home during her elementary school years and attended high school at St. Helen's Hall. In 1920, she graduated from Reed with a bachelor of arts degree in chemistry. She headed to Johns Hopkins University with her eye on becoming a doctor.
"But her mother told her being a doctor wasn't a fit job for a woman," Eliot said. "Grandmother had very strong notions."
Calista took her Ph.D. in hygiene in 1925 from the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. She then began teaching the relatively new subject of bacteriology at the school. Her students included physicians who had returned to update their education.
"I have this image of her prancing out on the stage, looking at a theater of crusty old doctors," Eliot said.
Calista met Ottis Causey, a short, plump man, when he enrolled in her courses in 1929; he had already received his bachelor's degree in zoology at Clemson College. He received his doctorate in the fields of entomology, parasitology, and bacteriology from Johns Hopkins in 1931. Ottis left in 1931 to become a professor and head of the biology department of Chulalongkorn University in Siam, where he performed taxonomic studies on Siamese mosquitoes and other insects.
After returning to Johns Hopkins to teach in 1935, Ottis joined the Rockefeller Foundation's International Health Division in 1939 and headed off to northeastern Brazil to participate in the Anopheles gambiae eradication project. Calista, however, was not to be left behind. At the age of 41, she married Ottis, who was then 34; the marriage was by proxy in Miami, Florida, because a single woman could not enter Brazil in those days.
"They were alike," said Caroline Causey Brown, Ottis Causey's niece. "Both were very adventuresome. Their work was amazing, up and down the Amazon. I remember her talking about driving a Model A through the jungle. . . . During the war they would dodge German U-boats off the coast of South America by riding freighters or supply planes. Nothing daunted them at all."