Hope for tiny lives

Mary Ellen Avery
Mary Ellen Avery

In 1963, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy gave birth to a baby boy, premature by five weeks. Almost immediately, doctors realized something was horribly wrong—his underdeveloped lungs were failing him. Two days later, he died gasping for breath.

While the Kennedys’ tragedy was visible on a national level, Mary Ellen Avery saw the same thing unfold in more private settings countless times. As a research fellow at Harvard School of Public Health in the 1950s, she had worked with premature infants in an attempt to discover exactly why some babies—like the Kennedys’ child—struggled to breathe after birth.

At the time, most researchers believed the problem was due to a thin, glassy film over the inside surface of the lungs that stopped respiration. But by 1957, Avery had discovered the true cause of the disorder. Instead of the presence of a film, Avery found that respiratory distress syndrome (as the disorder is called today) was caused by a lack of surfactant, a foamy coating of proteins and phospholipids that help the lungs expand.

Avery’s work soon led to the development of artificial surfactants that saved the lives of countless premature babies. Today, fewer than 1,000 U.S. infants die of the disorder each year, down from nearly 15,000 in the 1950s.

“She believed that the best basic science would produce the best outcomes for children—usually in ways that could not be anticipated,” said Joseph Brain, former chair of the Department of Environmental Health, in 2011.

In addition to her groundbreaking work in pediatric medicine, Avery, who died in 2011, was a pioneering leader in her field, becoming the first woman to serve as physician-in-chief of Boston Children’s Hospital, the first woman to chair a clinical department at Harvard Medical School, and the first woman president of the Society for Pediatric Research.

* * * * *

Is there an event, person, or discovery in Harvard School of Public Health history that you’d like to read about? Send your suggestions to centennial@hsph.harvard.edu.

Back to centennial moments homepage