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Mary Ellen Avery

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Mary Ellen Avery
(May 6, 1927 - December 4, 2011)
Born in the United States
Year of Discovery: 1959

Doctor Solves Puzzle that Suffocates Many Premature Babies!

Inspiration is not so much something that is pursued, as it is something that is recognized when it suddenly appears. Avery's life, beginning with her early days growing up in Camden, New Jersey in the 1930s, was filled with such moments of inspiration. One of the first, which would forever alter the course of Avery's life, was a simple accident of geography. She happened to live in the same neighborhood as Emily Bacon, a physician who established the first medical practice in Philadelphia dedicated exclusively to pediatrics. Bacon reached out in friendship to the young Avery and that was that. Avery saw in Bacon a role model of a life filled with fascinating possibilities - she determined she would also pursue a career in medicine. So, filled with determination, she went to medical school which was very uncommon for a woman of her day. Avery had another moment of inspiration thrust upon her shortly after her graduation from medical school. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Like many other pioneers, she used her suffering for inspiration, refusing to give in to self pity. She took her diagnosis in stride - literally. She moved to Europe for two years, where she undertook a self-designed regimen combining rest with long walks in the fresh air. It was during this period of recuperation that Avery's fascination with lungs developed which set the course of her future work.

Later, as a resident at Johns Hopkins in the mid-1950s, Avery began a serious study of the lungs. She was especially interested in the lung's surface tension and the role it played in the deaths of premature infants. It was Avery's insight that solved the mystery of respiratory distress syndrome (RDS), an often-fatal lung ailment afflicting premature infants. She discovered these premature infants were missing a crucial substance, called surfactant, which protects the lungs from collapsing when infants exhale. Her discovery led to life-saving treatments that allowed these newborns to overcome RDS and fill their lungs with the very breath of life.

Surfactant is the substance that keeps the lungs' airspaces expanded when we exhale. It acts by lowering the surface tension of the lungs, thus allowing the alveoli (the smallest air sacs inside the lungs) to remain open. But premature babies, especially those born before 28 weeks gestation, are unable to produce their own surfactant.

Avery had watched many premature infants lose their battle with RDS. It was difficult to watch and it happened quickly. The infants would struggle to breathe in fresh air, and then would make little grunting noises as they exhaled. They simply couldn't keep up. Their bodies turned blue and they died within the first three or four days of life. But, some survived. In fact, if they lived beyond those first critical days, they literally sprang back to life. Their lungs cleared and they were, by all appearances, healthy newborns. Avery wanted to know why. She was convinced there was something within the lungs themselves causing the RDS. Her breakthrough came when she heard that a scientist named Clements had identified a lung substance he called pulmonary surfactant. She was intrigued and drove to Maryland to meet with Clements during her Christmas vacation. As Clements explained the surfactant's role in helping the lungs maintain their expansion, by lessening the surface tension, Avery knew she had found her missing piece. She understood that if surfactant played this critical role it had to be the substance that was missing from the lungs of premature infants. Her findings revolutionized the understanding of RDS and set in motion a series of developments to treat this deadly disease.

Prior to Avery's discovery, doctors were at a loss as to how to treat these infants, and often watched helplessly as the infants struggled for breath and then died. Avery's identification of surfactant led to the development of replacement therapy for premature infants and has been credited with saving over 830,000 lives.


Introduction by Tim Anderson



Table of Contents

Links to More Information About the Scientist
Key Insight
Key Experiment or Research
Key Contributors
Quotes by the Scientist
Quotes About the Scientist
Similar Scientists
Fun Trivia About The Science
The Science Behind the Discovery
Personal Information
Science Discovery Timeline
Recommended Books About the Science
Books by the Scientist
Books About the Scientist
Major Academic Papers
Curriculum Vitae
Links to Science and Related Information on the Subject


Links to More About the Scientist & the Science

National Library of Medicine Biography:

Alfred I. duPont Award for Excellence in Children's Health Care:

FASEB Journal
article detailing Dr. Avery's role in discovering surfactant:

Children's Hospital Boston interview with Avery:

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Key Insight

Key Experiments or Research


Key Contributors

The Team
Explore other scientists who furthered this lifesaving advance.
Lifesavers: Surfactant
John Clements
Completed research on surfactants that saved babies with Respiratory Distress Syndrome.
Tetsuro Fujiwara
Developed a successful surfactant delivery method to treat Respiratory Distress Syndrome.

Quotes by the Scientist

Quotes About the Scientist



Similar Scientists

Explore these other scientists who have something significant in common with this science hero.
Women Science Heroes

Click on the slide!

Mary Ellen Avery

Discovered the cause of Respiratory Distress Syndrome

Avery's discovery was crucial in the fight against the deadly children's disease Respiratory Distress Syndrome.

Click on the slide!

Rachel Schneerson

Created vaccines to fight Hib disease

Schneerson's vaccines fought Hib disease, the leading cause of bacterial meningitis in young children.

Click on the slide!

Ann Holloway

Helped John Enders develop the measles vaccine

Holloway was John Enders' "most able technician and associate" in the search for a measles vaccine.

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Anna Mitus

Helped John Enders develop the measles vaccine

Mitus' expertise was critical in the development of the measles vaccine.

Click on the slide!

Grace Eldering

Developed the Whooping Cough (Pertussis) Vaccine

Eldering survived the deadly whooping cough disease at age five.

Click on the slide!

Pearl Kendrick

Developed the whooping cough (pertussis) vaccine

Kendrick was tenacious in her pursuit of a cure for whooping cough.

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Fun Trivia About the Science

The Science Behind the Discovery

Personal Information

Scientific Discovery Timeline

Recommended Books About the Science

Books by the Scientist

Books About the Scientist



Major Academic Papers Written by the Scientist

Curriculum Vitae

Links to Information on the Science


Comments (3)
3 Sunday, 11 December 2011 15:49
H. William Taeusch MD
Mary Ellen Avery died last week after a long stint with Alzheimers. She was a brilliant clinician, scientist, teacher and administrator.
2 Monday, 07 March 2011 16:29
Ben Goodman
Thank you!
1 Wednesday, 19 May 2010 11:06
Homeschool girls rock
AWSOME WOMAN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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