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.