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(1923 - )
Born in the United States
Year of Discovery: 1959
Found Missing Substance in Lungs of Premature Babies - Led to Many Lives Saved!
Some young men like football, others like politics, and still others prefer the fine arts. John Clements liked chemistry. Attending Cornell on a scholarship, he found its rigorous chemistry program to be “immense fun.” But the events of World War II soon altered the course of his life. Clements volunteered for an accelerated program at Cornell Medical College and earned his medical degree in 1947. Then, in the early 1950s, he again volunteered his services – this time to the Army Chemical Center in Maryland. It was here Clements was thrust into studying the impact of chemical warfare agents, an area that first sparked his interest in the surface tension of the lungs. This experience proved to be critical to his later discovery of surfactant. This is the substance in the lungs’ airspaces that allows them to remain expanded when they exhale. Surfactant is missing in premature babies and this causes respiratory distress syndrome (RDS). Clements’ discovery laid the groundwork for the development of a surfactant replacement therapy for premature infants.
Premature babies, especially those born before 28 weeks gestation, are often unable to produce their own surfactant. Prior to Clements’ 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. Clements’ discovery 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 About the Scientist & the Science
The University of California San Francisco interview with Clements (pdf):
FASEB Journal article detailing Clement's role in discovering surfactant:
Wikipedia discussion of pulmonary surfactant:
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The Science Behind the Discovery
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