Posts tagged: Mary Ellen Avery

New Acquisitions: the Jeremiah Mead Papers

By , August 9, 2013

Jere Mead (center, seated) with collaborators (L to R) T. A. Sears, David Leith, Ronald J. Knudson, and Ralph Kellogg, circa 1965. H MS c413. From the Harvard Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine.

The Center for the History of Medicine is delighted to announce the recent acquisition of Jeremiah Mead’s personal and professional records. The collection consists of research records, correspondence, subject files, and writings produced and collected by Mead during his nearly six decades of leading research in the field of Respiratory Mechanics while working in the Department of Physiology at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH).

Mead (1920-2009) was a graduate of both Harvard College (1943) and Harvard Medical School (1946).  He joined the faculty of the Department of Physiology at HSPH as Assistant Professor in 1950, was appointed Professor of Physiology in 1965, and was named the first Cecil K. and Philip Drinker Professor of Environmental Physiology in 1976 (Emeritus, 1987-2009).

By all accounts, Mead was a “tinkerer” and viewed lab work as “play”; he frequently built conceptual models out of household items and welcomed seemingly outlandish questions and hypotheses as the essential driving force of innovation.  Mead realized his passion for research while engaged in cold-climate physiology experimentation during a post-war Army assignment at Fort Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, a field station for the Quartermaster Corps Climatic Research Laboratory (CRL) then based in Lawrence, Massachusetts (now the United States Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, Massachusetts).  Upon his return from service, Mead left clinical medicine and sought to build a career in the lab.  He found his place in the HSPH Department of Physiology under the leadership of James L. Whittenberger.

Mead’s interest in decoding the normal mechanisms of breathing inspired the growth of a new field of Respiratory Mechanics that continued to expand throughout the latter half of the twentieth century.  He and his collaborators developed methods and instruments for measuring air flow and evaluating pulmonary function with ever-increasing accuracy. In recent decades these tools have been applied to the treatment and relief of patients suffering from a host of medical conditions including, but not limited to, poliomyelitis, cystic fibrosis, and asthma.  Perhaps the most widely recognized result of Mead’s work was the 1959 discovery, alongside then-research fellow Mary Ellen Avery, that newborns with fatal respiratory distress syndrome exhibited abnormal surface tension in the lungs; this breakthrough facilitated Avery’s later discovery of lung surfactant and the implementation of life-saving surfactant replacement therapy in newborns.

Mary Ellen Avery featured on VOA Health Report

By , July 13, 2012

This week, the Voice of America Health Report highlighted Mary Ellen Avery and her life-saving surfactant discovery. The story includes a clip from Avery’s oral history interview in the Archives for Women in Medicine, and a fascinating anecdote from Children’s Hospital’s Dr. Anne Hansen regarding early use of surfactant replacement therapy:

“…The attending who I was on with said, ‘When you’re on call tonight, if there’s a baby born who’s premature, you should watch very closely the natural history of that disease, because this is the last night before we’re going to start giving Exosurf to all our preterm babies. So, this will be your last chance ever in your life to see what a preterm baby does when they don’t receive Exosurf.’ And then he told me the whole story of Dr. Avery and her discoveries.”

Read more: How a 1959 Discovery Saves Premature Babies

Remembering Mary Ellen Avery

By , December 22, 2011

Avery oral historyWe were saddened to hear of the recent passing of one of the many pioneers documented in the Archives for Women in Medicine, Dr. Mary Ellen Avery. Avery, an early supporter of the Archives for Women in Medicine, was known for her perseverance, warmth, and commitment to improving access to care for sick infants. In 1959, Avery discovered that the lack of a foamy fluid called surfactant, which allows the lungs to expand, was the cause of Respiratory Distress Syndrome in premature infants – then the primary cause of infant mortality in the United States.

We are grateful that her legacy lives on through the many lives she touched as a teacher and mentor, through the babies who are saved each day by surfactant replacement therapy, and also through the papers, records, and artifacts she left behind. Dr. Avery’s collection in the Archives for Women in Medicine documents her life and career, including her contributions to the field of neonatal care; her relationships with her colleagues, mentors, and friends; and her own feelings and experiences along the way. Her collection includes childhood diaries which she annotated at age 60, photographs from her travels around the world, and personal reflections, often scribbled on the backs of meeting agendas and memos.

We are currently working on an online exhibit of these and other items from Dr. Avery’s collection, including items discovered in a recent acquisition that relate to Avery’s involvement in the first U.S. clinical trials of surfactant replacement therapy; the exhibit will be made available from this blog, CHoM News. In the meantime, view this oral history video interview with Dr. Avery, in which she leaves us with this advice:

“Hanging in there is key, I think. Knowing what you want to do and not being easily discouraged is key, particularly in research. You’re always moving into the unknown and you can spend months trying to prove something only to find that you made terrible mistakes. You have to be willing to say six months of my life and my hard work went down the drain. And you have to start over. That’s terrible discouragement. You can either quit or say I will start over. If it’s a question that’s worth pursuing, it’s probably worth continuing to pursue.”

Warren Museum featured on Chronicle HD

By , November 28, 2011

Polio Leg Braces, 1953, Warren Anatomical Museum, Francis A, Countway Library of Medicine, WAM 20456

The Warren Museum, curator Dominic Hall, and several associated Center for the History of Medicine artifacts and preparations were featured in the November 22, 2011 episode of Boston’s WCBV TV 5’s Chronicle HD. The four segment episode focused on the highlights and unique findings along Boston’s Huntington Avenue.

The Warren Museum and the Center for the History of Medicine were featured in the fourth segment of the program. In addition to an interview with Dominic Hall regarding the Museum overall, the episode explored the traumatic brain injury of Phineas Gage [WAM 00949], sheep lung surfactant that Harvard professor Mary Ellen Avery used to treat infant RDS [WAM 20451], leg braces from a Massachusetts polio survivor [WAM 20456], and a Codman & Surtleff bullet probe that was unsuccessfully used to locate the assassin’s bullet lodged in President James Garfield’s spine [WAM 20342].

The Chronicle HD program can be viewed in full or by segment on the WCBV website.
[As of December 9th, the Chronicle website no longer had the Huntington Avenue program available on its website. Sorry for the inconvenience.]

Mary Ellen Avery in The New Yorker

By , November 2, 2011

Harvard Medical School Professor Jerome Groopman’s recent New Yorker article details the development of neonatal care in the United States, including the role of Mary Ellen Avery, whose 1959 discovery of the cause of Respiratory Distress Syndrome (RDS) in premature infants led to a successful treatment that is still used today.  Avery,  Thomas Morgan Rotch Professor of Pediatrics Emeritus at Harvard Medical School, found that RDS – then the most common cause of death among premature infants – resulted from the lack of a foamy fluid called surfactant which creates surface tension and allows the lungs to inflate. Thanks to this treatment, by 2005 there were 860 infant deaths a year in the U.S. from RDS, down from almost 10,000 a year in 1970.

Groopman describes the surfactant replacement therapy process today:

Minutes after birth, replacement surfactant, a mixture of fats and proteins that looks like skim milk, is percolated into the baby’s lungs. The surfactant preparation, which comes from the lungs of cows or pigs, keeps the air sacs in the lungs open.

Read more: “A Child in Time: New frontiers in treating premature babies”

View the finding aid for the Mary Ellen Avery Papers in the Archives for Women in Medicine »

Related posts »

Jerome Groopman is the Dina and Raphael Recanati Chair of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and is the Chief of Experimental Medicine at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Mary Ellen Avery Exhibit at Children’s Hospital through November

By , September 29, 2010

Avery exhibit case at Children’s Hospital Boston

Two organizations are celebrating Mary Ellen Avery through a collaborative exhibit featuring items from the extensive archival collections generated from her pioneering career and contributions to pediatrics.  The Children’s Hospital Boston Archives and the Harvard Medical School’s Archives for Women in Medicine and Warren Anatomical Museum have placed on display original and reproduced items from Avery’s archives, including her childhood diary, vials of sheep lung surfactant, photographs, correspondence, and other documents.

The exhibit can be viewed in the main lobby of the Enders Building at 300 Longwood Avenue in Boston, Mass.  If you get a chance to stop by and see it, please comment and let us know what you think!

Related post: Mary Ellen Avery papers now open for research

More on Avery: Finding aid to the Mary Ellen Avery Papers, 1929-2002

September 29th: Women in Medicine Grand Rounds at Children’s Hospital Boston

By , September 23, 2010

Wednesday, Sept. 29, from 12-1 p.m.
Folkman Auditorium, Enders Building, Children’s Hospital Boston

September is Women in Medicine Month, and in celebration, Children’s Hospital Boston will present a special Women in Medicine Grand Rounds.

This year’s speaker will be Margaret Hostetter, MD, who trained as a resident at Children’s, and is now chief of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Dr. Hostetter will present “Infection in Fiction: Tuberculosis in Literature from the 19th to the 21st Century,” a look at the portrayal of fictional characters with tuberculosis in three novels – Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, Wings of the Dove by Henry James, and The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann – and how the various aspects of the disease that were noted by these authors have now been genetically proven.

Prior to Dr. Hostetter’s presentation, Children’s Estherann Grace, MD, clinical chief of the Division of Adolescent Medicine, will present a brief history of the role of women physicians throughout the hospital’s history. Learn about the first woman physician at Children’s, the role of women associate physicians during World War II and watch a video interview with Mary Ellen Avery, MD, Children’s first woman physician-in-chief and the first woman to chair a major clinical department at Harvard Medical School.

Mary Ellen Avery’s groundbreaking career will also be honored with an archival exhibit in the Enders Building, which will be available for viewing before and after the program, and through November.

This program is part of an event series co-sponsored by Countway Library’s Archives for Women in Medicine and HMS’s affiliated hospitals to celebrate pioneering and contemporary women leaders in medicine and science. This Grand Rounds is open to all HMS-affiliated faculty and staff.

Staff Finds: The John Rock Papers

By , August 17, 2010

Catalog Number 20452. Warren Anatomical Museum, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine.

While listing the recent accession of John Rock’s personal papers, processing staff at the Center for the History of Medicine discovered a package of the contraceptive pills Norlestrin, complete with original packaging, instructions, and informational pamphlet. (Note that the left hand of the model is prominently displayed; although approved by the FDA in 1960, oral contraceptive pills were not available to unmarried women in all states until 1972.)

These items were transferred to the custody of the Warren Anatomical Museum, the Center division that curates and cares for artifacts when they are discovered as part of manuscript or archival collections. This relationship creates a deep informational link between museum objects and archival records, forming a rich material culture landscape for future researchers. This happens both as the backlog of collections are processed and as new collections are evaluated and accessioned. In 2010, the museum also accepted into its care Janet McArthur’s Welch Allyn diagnostic set and samples of the original sheep lung surfactant used by Mary Ellen Avery, both from the Archives for Women in Medicine.

The listing of this accession is nearly complete and it will soon be available to researchers. The finding aid for the John Rock Personal and Professional Papers can be found here. For more information, please contact the Public Services staff.

Mary Ellen Avery Papers now open for research

By , August 6, 2010

Photograph of Mary Ellen Avery, circa 1960 (H MS c201, Box 27, Folder 35)

The Archives for Women in Medicine is pleased to announce that the personal and professional papers of Mary Ellen Avery, M.D. are now open for research.  Dr. Avery is known for her 1959 discovery of the cause of respiratory distress syndrome in premature infants: the lack of lung surfactant, a foamy fluid which creates surface tension and allows the lungs to inflate. This discovery led to the development of a treatment for RDS in newborns, and for this Avery was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1991. Avery was appointed Thomas Morgan Rotch Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School in 1974, and served as Physician-in-Chief at The Children’s Hospital, Boston, from 1974-1985, the first woman to serve as clinical chief of Children’s Hospital. Her main areas of research were in lung biochemistry, surface tension, neonatology, and pulmonary physiology. Avery also had a keen interest in training young physicians, and while at Children’s Hospital she established the Joint Program in Neonatology, a training, patient care, and research program which formed “one nursery in three locations:” Children’s Hospital, Beth Israel Hospital (now Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center), and the Boston Hospital for Women (now Brigham and Women’s Hospital).

The Mary Ellen Avery collection consists of personal and professional correspondence, teaching materials, professional activities records, grant records, diaries, articles and drafts, and lectures from Avery’s life and career as a pediatrician, researcher, educator, and administrator.

For more information about Dr. Avery, the collection, and how to access the materials, please view the collection finding aid:

View the online Finding Aid »

Selected items from the Mary Ellen Avery Papers have been digitized and are available online. To view and download these items, visit our digital repository. We also have an oral history video interview with Mary Ellen Avery available for download here.

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