Mary Ellen Avery, MD
Mary Ellen Avery, MD, a longtime ATS member and a pioneer in pediatric medicine, died on December 4th, 2011, at the age of 84. Dr. Avery is best known for her groundbreaking discovery that respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) in premature newborns is caused by a lack of surfactant, the foamy coating that helps lungs expand.
“Her passing is a great loss for the countless premature infants who survived because of her scientific inquiry, and for all those physicians and scientists who care for infants and children and who have benefited from her many contributions to the field of pediatrics,” said Howard Panitch, MD, chair of the Society’s Scientific Assembly on Pediatrics.
Dr. Avery graduated from Wheaton College in 1948 with a degree in chemistry and enrolled at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, where she was one of only four women in a class of 90. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis shortly after graduating in 1952 and became interested in lung disease during her recuperation.
Following her recovery, Dr. Avery completed her internship and residency at Johns Hopkins and then began a research fellowship at the Harvard School of Public Health. It was here that she made her discovery of the connection between a lack of surfactant in the lungs of premature infants and RDS, for which she was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1991 by President George Bush.
Dr. Avery joined Harvard and Children’s Hospital Boston in 1974. During her tenure as physician-in-chief, she became the first woman to chair a major clinical department at Harvard Medical School. She was elected to the National Academy of Science in 1994 and was the first pediatrician to serve as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She received the Trudeau Medal from ATS in 1984. Dr. Avery is the author of several widely used textbooks, including The Lung and Its Disorders in the Newborn Infant.
Dr. Avery “was a trailblazer from the beginning,” said Jamed Mandell, MD, CEO of Children’s Hospital Boston. Her death “is a great loss to both the Children’s family and the global pediatric community, but her legacy lives on in every premature infant who would not have survived without her work.”