Elizabeth Mary Thomas was born in Memphis, Tennessee and raised in Granada, Mississippi. She started college in 1924 but took a break from her studies for about a decade, eventually earning her B.A. from the University of Mississippi in 1937. The following year, she went to Egypt as a tourist and was befriended by the American colony of Egyptologists from the University of Chicago. They persuaded her to pursue formal study at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. There she studied a variety of subjects and learned ancient languages. During World War II, she went to work as a cryptographer for the Army Signal Corps. After the war, she resumed her graduate studies and received her master's degree in 1948. She then returned to Egypt during the 1949-1950 season to work with Alexandre Piankoff on texts in the tomb of Ramesses VI in the Valley of the Kings, and the pyramid texts of Unas at Saqqara in the north. In 1953, she went back to Luxor at her own expense to begin an investigation of royal tombs in the Valley of the Queens, most of which had never even been identified, and the king’s tombs, most of which had never been published. Her definitive work, The Royal Necropoleis of Thebes (1966), is still considered the standard text for the study of New Kingdom royal tombs.