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Mary Ellen Avery
Born 1927

Mary Ellen Avery (born 1927)

In the 1950s, Dr. Avery's pioneering research efforts helped lead to the discovery of the main cause of respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) in premature babies. Over a long career in academic medicine, Dr. Avery has had a strong interest in helping train young physicians, particularly in pulmonary disease and neonatology. She has been a role model and advocate for women entering the medical profession. Over the course of her medical career, she has contributed significantly to the field of medicine as a researcher, educator, clinician, and administrator. In 1991 President George Bush conferred the National Medal of Service on Dr. Avery for her work on RDS.

Mary Ellen Avery was born in 1927, in Camden, New Jersey. Her father owned a manufacturing company in Philadelphia and her mother was vice-principal of a high school. An early inspiration was pediatrician Emily Bacon, who lived in Avery's neighborhood. She greatly admired Dr. Bacon, who took Avery to see her first premature baby. "She kindly reached out to me in many ways, and I saw her life as more exciting and meaningful than most of the women I knew," Avery has recalled.

Graduating summa cum laude from Wheaton College in 1948 with a degree in chemistry, Mary Ellen Avery went on to earn a medical degree from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1952. Soon after graduating, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and it was during her recuperation that she became fascinated with how the lungs work. Rest and medication would cure her, but she went about the regime her own way. Once she realized she was exhibiting no symptoms, she decided to go to Europe with a friend. "I packed one suitcase of medication and another suitcase of clothes, and spent three months in Europe on a regime that I programmed for myself," Avery said. "It consisted of 12 hours in bed every night, and in the daytime mostly walking around and looking at exhibits and enjoying myself, but not anything strenuous."

Dr. Avery returned to Johns Hopkins for her internship and residency, then moved to Boston in 1957 for a research fellowship in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. At Harvard, she made a major discovery while comparing the lungs of infants who had died of RDS to those of healthy animals. "It's all because they had something they would have not needed before birth because they weren't using their lungs for ventilation before birth. But after birth, without it, they could not live more than a day or two. And therefore I found what was missing." What she had found was a foamy substance that she deduced must play a critical role. Dr. Avery's observation formed the basis of a breakthrough paper published in the American Journal of Diseases of Children in 1959. By 1995 there were 1,460 infant deaths a year in the U.S. from RDS, down from almost 10,000 a year twenty-five years earlier.

In 1960, Dr. Avery became an assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University and pediatrician in charge of newborn nurseries. She went on to serve as professor and chair of the department of pediatrics at McGill University in Montreal. In 1974, she joined the faculty of Harvard Medical School as professor of pediatrics. That same year she was the first woman named physician-in-chief at Boston's Children's Hospital, where she remained until 1985.

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