Her Passion for Research Revolutionized the Care of Premature Babies

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Mary Ellen Avery, MD, is credited with saving more than 800,000 babies' lives

Mary Ellen Avery, MD, never met most of the more than 800,000 babies whose lives she is credited with saving.

Seven years after her death, her pioneering research into Respiratory Distress Syndrome (RDS) continues to help premature babies around the world who are born without a foamy coating in their lungs that enables them to breathe. That led to the development of a surfactant that replaced the missing coating.

Dr. Avery had a lot of time to think about how the lungs work. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis after graduating from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1952. It took two years for her to recover.

In 1959, when Dr. Avery made her discovery, as many as 15,000 babies a year died from RDS. By 2002, fewer than 1,000 did. When Dr. Avery died in 2011, it was estimated that her work was responsible for saving 800,000 premature babies.

Born and raised in Camden, N.J., Avery was the daughter of a canvas manufacturer. Her mother had served as an assistant principal at a high school but gave up her career to raise a family.

Dr. Avery found a mentor in her family’s next-door neighbor, who was one of the city’s first female pediatricians. As a girl, she often accompanied the doctor on house calls, including visits to premature infants.

Her father encouraged her to take over the family business. But she yearned for a career in medicine. While a junior at Wheaton College, she wrote her parents “a long letter about why I was so ambitious and restless. I hope they won’t continue to try to hold me back. The only reason I am moving rapidly now…is my freedom to seek out inspiration and work hard—which I enjoy doing.”


A Life of Firsts

Her long and storied career included many firsts: The first woman to be appointed physician in chief at Children’s Hospital in Boston; the first woman to head a clinical department at Harvard Medical School; the first woman chosen president of the Society for Pediatric Research; and the first pediatrician to lead the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In 1991, Dr. Avery was awarded the National Medal of Science by President George Bush, the highest honor bestowed upon American scientists and engineers by the president. In 2003, Dr. Avery received the Alma Dea Morani Award from what is now the Women in Medicine Legacy Foundation, presented each year to a trailblazer in science or medicine.

She was her own best chronicler of her career and passions. She gave interviews for various hospital newsletters, the U.S. Library of Medicine, and the Countway Library at Harvard Medical School. She maintained a collection of newspaper clippings and personal correspondence. She wrote textbooks, including the seminal guide “The Lung and Its Disorders in the Newborn Infant.”  

When she reflected on her career, Dr. Avery said that medical research is a long-term commitment fraught with detours and discouragement. Her advice to others was to learn when to give up and when to rethink the question.

“You can either quit or say I will start over,” she said. “If it’s a question that’s worth pursuing, it’s probably worth continuing to pursue.”

Her passing was noted in the New York Times with the headline: “Mary Ellen Avery, Premature Babies’ Savior, Dies at 84.”

Dr. Stella Kourembanas, chief of newborn medicine at Children’s Hospital, said Dr. Avery’s work enabled premature infants “to survive and have a wonderful life.” 


This story was made possible by The Countway Library of Medicine.

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Alicia Lazzaro