In Memoriam: Mary Ellen Avery, MD

Mary Ellen Avery, MDMary Ellen Avery, Thomas Morgan Rotch Professor of Pediatrics, Emeritus, at Harvard Medical School and former physician-in-chief at Children’s Hospital Boston, died Dec. 4, 2011, in West Orange, N.J., of complications of Alzheimer's disease. She was 84.

Her 1959 discovery that respiratory distress syndrome in premature newborns is caused by a lack of surfactant, the foamy coating that helps lungs expand, saved countless lives. It has stood for more than 50 years as medicine’s most important advance in the care of premature newborns.

Known as Mel to her friends, Avery was born in Camden, N.J., 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 enrolled in Johns Hopkins School of Medicine as one of four women in a class of 90.

Shortly after graduating in 1952, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and it was during her recuperation that she turned her attention to the workings of the lungs.

After her recovery, Avery returned to Johns Hopkins for internship and residency, followed by a research fellowship in pediatrics at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston in 1957. There, Avery made her surfactant discovery, which has saved hundreds of thousands of newborn lives. When Avery received the National Medal of Science in 1991, the award cited her as a founder of neonatal intensive care and “a major advocate of improving access to care of all premature and sick infants.”

Avery served as pediatrician-in-charge of Newborn Nurseries at Johns Hopkins, physician-in-chief at Montreal Children's Hospital and physician in chief at Children's Hospital Boston from 1974 to 1985. She was the first woman to hold the position at Children’s and the first to chair a major clinical department at HMS, when she was named the Thomas Morgan Rotch Professor of Pediatrics. She was elected to the National Academy of Science and was the first pediatrician to serve as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Avery greatly strengthened Children’s capabilities in the emerging field of neonatology and established the Joint Program in Neonatology with Beth Israel and Peter Bent Brigham hospitals. Later, she turned her sights on global health, socioeconomic disparities and human rights, traveling 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,” she said. “And I am so saturated and pleased to share it with anybody who will listen. And that makes for a very fulfilling life.”

Avery lived in Wellesley for many years before moving to New Jersey.

A service for Dr. Avery was held Dec. 9 at the First Presbyterian Church in Moorestown, N.J. Gifts in Dr. Avery’s honor may be made to Children's Hospital Trust, Attention: Mary Conway, 1 Autumn St. #731, Boston, MA 02215 for the Mary Ellen Avery Investigatorship Fund at Children's Hospital Boston.