Mary Ellen Avery, pioneer in medicine and public health, dies at 84

December 8, 2011 — Mary Ellen Avery, a major figure in Boston medicine and public health whose work while a research fellow at HSPH in the 1950s led to one of the most important strategies to improve care for newborns, passed away last weekend at the age of 84.

Known as Mel to her friends and colleagues, Dr. Avery lived a life shaped by a groundbreaking discovery made while she was at HSPH that has saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of infants.

The discovery showed that Respiratory Distress Syndrome (RDS) in premature newborns is caused by a lack of surfactant, a mixture of phospholipids and proteins that helps lungs expand. Her ideas led to surfactant replacement therapy and to the modern neonatal intensive care unit or NICU. Her research–both fundamental and applied–earned Dr. Avery a National Medal of Science in 1991. 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.”

Dr. Avery’s mentor and lifelong friend at HSPH was Jere Mead, a professor in what was then the Department of Physiology. He became the architect of the field of respiratory mechanics. The seminal paper on neonatal RDS was authored by Avery and Mead. Professor Mead died in 2009.

Douglas Dockery, chair of the Department of Environmental Health which now encompasses the department where Dr. Avery worked, celebrates her emphasis on the health and welfare of children. “Her legacy persists and now flourishes with a new generation of fellows and faculty who study how events during gestation and infancy critically influence the health of children and adults,” he said.

Joseph Brain, former chair of the Department of Environmental Health, remembers Mel as an inspiring and tireless colleague who collaborated with HSPH on both training and research. “Ideas, technologies, and especially young people moved freely between the Department of Pediatrics and our department in a way that maximized creativity and the career development of young people,” he said. “She believed that the best basic science would produce the best outcomes for children–usually in ways that could not be anticipated.”

Dr. Avery was born in Camden, NJ, and raised in Moorestown, where her father owned a manufacturing company and her mother was vice-principal of a high school. She graduated from Wheaton College in 1948, with a degree in chemistry and later enrolled in Johns Hopkins School of Medicine as one of only four women in a class of 90. She would have preferred to be in Boston, but Harvard Medical School did not accept women until 1949–-a year later. Shortly after graduating in 1952, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. It was during her recuperation that she became fascinated with how the lungs work.

After her recovery, Dr. Avery returned to Johns Hopkins for her internship and residency, and then began a research fellowship at Harvard School of Public Health in 1957 where she ultimately made the life-saving discovery.

Dr. Avery was a pioneer who shattered medicine’s glass ceiling. Her professional career brought her from pediatrician-in-charge of Newborn Nurseries at Johns Hopkins and Physician-in-Chief at Montreal Children’s Hospital to Children’s Hospital Boston, where, from 1974 to 1985, she was the first woman to serve as physician-in-chief. At same time, she broke new ground as the first woman to chair a major clinical department at Harvard Medical School, when she was named the Thomas Morgan Rotch Professor of Pediatrics. She was also the first woman president of the Society for Pediatric Research, 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. In 2005, she was awarded the Howland Prize from the American Pediatric Society, the highest honor in pediatrics.

Dr. Avery greatly strengthened Children’s Hospital’s capabilities in neonatology, a specialty that then was just emerging, and established the Joint Program in Neonatology with the Beth Israel and Peter Bent Brigham Hospitals. “Mel was a major mentor to all of her residents and a pied piper of women in medicine, significantly increasing the number of women entering pediatrics,” according to Frederick Lovejoy, Children’s associate physician-in-chief.  “As a wonderful mentor she was known for her warmth, her deep caring, and extremely high standards.”

Stepping down as chief in 1985, she turned her sights on global health, socioeconomic disparities, and human rights, going country-to-country with UNICEF to promote oral rehydration therapy and polio vaccination. “I feel that I am a citizen of this one world, and that I can resonate with people, with a lot in common—it’s called science, science methods,” Dr. Avery said. “And I am so pleased to share it with anybody who will listen. And that makes for a very fulfilling life.”

The service for Dr. Avery will be held at 11 a.m. on Friday, Dec.  9at First Presbyterian Church, 101 Bridgeboro Rd., Moorestown, New Jersey.  A memorial service is being planned for February at Harvard University at a to-be-determined date.

photo: Children’s Hospital Boston