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Mary Ellen Avery

  • National Medal of Science
  • Biological Sciences

For her discovery of the major cause of respiratory distress syndrome of premature infants and the strategies for treatment and prevention.

Mary Ellen Avery, a medical researcher and pediatrician, was the first woman to be appointed physician in chief at Children’s Hospital, the first woman to head a clinical department at Harvard Medical School, and the first woman to be chosen president of the Society for Pediatric Research. Avery’s career and contributions helped pave the way for women in medicine.

After graduating medical school Avery contracted tuberculosis, which she says inspired her “to know more about the physiology of the lung.” During a two-year fellowship at Harvard, Avery made a major discovery while comparing the lungs of infants who had died of respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) to those of healthy animals. She found premature babies’ lungs lacked a coating that enables them to breathe outside of the womb.

Avery’s observation led to a breakthrough paper published in the American Journal of Diseases of Children in 1959, and forever changed premature infant care. When Avery started her work, as many as 15,000 babies a year died from RDS– by 2002, fewer than 1,000 did. Her contributions saved thousands of newborns, and her passion for research inspired many women to go into pediatrics and medicine.

By Jen Santisi