Mary Ellen Avery
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|Mary Ellen Avery|
May 6, 1927|
Camden, New Jersey
|Died||December 4, 2011
|Institutions||Harvard Medical School
Johns Hopkins University
Children's Hospital Boston
|Alma mater||Wheaton College
Johns Hopkins University
|Notable awards||E. Mead Johnson Award (1968)
National Medal of Science (1991)
John Howland Award (2005)
Mary Ellen Avery (May 6, 1927 – December 4, 2011) was an American pediatrician. 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: her identification of surfactant led to the development of replacement therapy for premature infants and has been credited with saving over 830,000 lives. In 1991 President George Bush conferred the National Medal of Science on Dr. Avery for her work on RDS.
Mary Ellen Avery was born May 6, 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, where she was one of four women in a class of ninety, 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 regimen 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 regimen 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. She was the first woman to head a clinical department at Harvard Medical School. That same year she was the first woman named physician-in-chief at Children's Hospital Boston, where she remained until 1985.
In 1990-91, she was the President of the American Pediatric Society. She has been involved in child healthcare delivery worldwide, as an active member of UNICEF.
Awards and honors
- 1968 E. Mead Johnson Award for pediatric research
- 1973 Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
- 1984 Trudeau Medal from the American Lung Association
- 1991 National Medal of Science, in recognition of contributions to understanding and treating respiratory distress syndrome. The award cited Dr. Avery as one of the founders of neonatal intensive care and "a major advocate of improving access to care of all premature and sick infants."
- 1994 Member of the National Academy of Sciences
- 2003, elected president of the National Academy of Sciences
- 2005 John Howland Award
- "Mary Ellen Avery M.D. Obituary: View Mary Avery's Obituary by Courier-Post". Legacy.com. 2011-12-04. Retrieved 2011-12-30.
- Homeschool girls rock. "Avery, Mary Ellen". Scienceheroes.com. Retrieved 2011-12-30.
- "Mary Ellen Avery, Premature Babies’ Savior, Dies at 84" "New York Times", 11 Jan 2012 
- "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter A" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 28 April 2011.
- Dr. Mary Ellen Avery on the site of the National Library of Medicine
- International Pediatrics Research Foundation (includes photo)
- Mary Ellen Avery papers, 1929-2002 (inclusive), HMSc201. Harvard Medical Library, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Center for the History of Medicine, Harvard Medical School
- Digitized Images from the Mary Ellen Avery papers
- Link to Dr. Mary Ellen Avery on the site Scienceheroes.com