Mary Ellen Avery

Harvard University

May 6, 1927 - December 4, 2011


Election Year: 1994
Scientific Discipline: Medical Physiology and Metabolism
Membership Type: Member

Mary Ellen Avery pioneered the field of neonatal care. She is credited with discovering the cause of respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) in premature infants. Avery found that premature infants with RDS lacked surfactant (a lipoprotein complex that aids in lung expansion) production. This discovery led to the development of surfactant replacement therapies and the modern neonatal intensive care unit. Avery’s work has saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
Avery graduated from Wheaton College summa sum laude in 1948 and from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine as one of four women in her class in 1952. After completing her residency at Johns Hopkins she began a research fellowship at Harvard University. She was appointed pediatrician-in-charge of the Newborn Nurseries at Johns Hopkins in 1960. In 1974 she became the first woman to hold the position of physician-in-chief at Boston Children’s Hospital, and in the same year she was the first woman to chair the Pediatrics Department at Harvard Medical School. Avery was the first woman president of the Society for Pediatric Research and the first pediatrician to serve as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1991 she was awarded the National Medal of Science by President George H.W. Bush for her work with RDS.

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