Obit of the Day: The Woman Who Saved 800,000 Babies
Prior to the work of Dr. Mary Ellen Avery, 15,000 premature babies died every year from hyaline membrane disease. Avery and other pediatric pulmonologists originally thought that the infants died because of a glassy membrane on the lungs. But Dr. Avery discovered that what was truly the cause was a lack of a foam in the lungs that is called surfactant. A Japanese colleague, Dr. Tetsuro Fujiwara, took the new information and created an artificial surfactant from cows’ lungs. The death rate for premature babies who die from what is now called “respiratory distress syndrome” is down 1500% from the time when Dr. Avery began her research in 1959.
Dr. Avery was awarded the National Medal of Science for her work on surfactant. She was also a pioneer in other areas of pediatrics and research:
- 1st woman to be appointed physician in chief at Children’s Hospital Boston
- 1st to head a clinical department at Harvard Medical School
- 1st to serve as president of the Society for Pediatric Research
- 1st pediatrician to lead the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
She passed away at the age of 84.
(Image of Dr. Avery checking on one of her tiny patients is courtesy of Center for the History of Medicine at the Countway Library in Boston.)