Women in Medicine Month: Celebrating women who paved the way

Photo of Dr. Mary Ellen Avery in her office
Dr. Avery (Photos: Boston Children’s Hospital Archives)

September is Women in Medicine Month, the perfect time to acknowledge the many brilliant, talented, and passionate women who care for our patients and innovate new discoveries every day at Boston Children’s Hospital.

In honor of Boston Children’s 150th anniversary, we’d like to recognize a few of the many trailblazers who helped pave the way.

Dr. Mary Ellen Avery

Dr. Avery examines an infant
Dr. Avery

Dr. Mary Ellen Avery (1927-2011), was Boston Children’s first female physician-in-chief. A graduate of Wheaton College and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Dr. Avery became interested in studying the lungs after being diagnosed with tuberculosis shortly after her graduation from medical school.

A neonatologist and researcher, Dr. Avery helped identify the main cause of respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) in premature infants and is credited with saving more than 830,000 lives. Recognized around the world for her work, she was the recipient of many awards including the Mead Johnson Award for Pediatric Research, the Trudeau Medal from the American Lung Association, and the National Medal of Science, in recognition of work in understanding and treating RDS.

Betty E. Lank

Before pediatric anesthesia was an established specialty, children were anesthetized with ether, using one-size-fits-all equipment. Boston Children’s chief nurse anesthetist Betty Lank (1904-2011) took it upon herself to design child-sized masks and ventilation bags and became the first person in the U.S. to use cyclopropane — an improved anesthetic — with children. She also helped design the first post-anesthesia recovery area at Boston Children’s and administered anesthesia during several pioneering procedures at the hospital, including the first surgical repair of esophageal atresia.

Nurse anesthetist Betty Lank talks with a patient at bedside.
Betty Lank

Dr. Mary Ellen Beck Wohl

Dr. Mary Ellen Beck Wohl joined the hospital in 1962 as associate director of the general clinical research center. She was especially interested in respiratory disease in children, including asthma, cystic fibrosis, and lung growth and disease.

Photo of Dr. Wohl in her office.
Dr. Wohl

In 1980, Dr. Wohl was named chief of the Division of Respiratory Diseases at Boston Children’s. Starting in 1985 she ran the Cystic Fibrosis Center at the hospital and trained 60 fellows in pediatric pulmonology in the program she founded and developed. In 2002 Dr. Wohl retired from this position and was named division chief emerita.

Dr. Lynne McArthur Reid

Dr. Lynne McArthur Reid was born in Australia in 1923, and became interested medicine as a young child. After graduating with a medical degree from Melbourne Medical School in 1946, she became the first researcher to receive a grant in pathology from the National Health and Medical Research Council at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

Dr. Reid with Howard Mulhern

In 1975, Dr. Reid was appointed S. Burt Wolbach Professor of Pathology at Harvard Medical School and pathologist-in-chief at Boston Children’s. She held these positions until her retirement in 1989.

During the course of her career, Dr. Reid focused her research on various areas of thoracic medicine including bronchiectasis, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, pulmonary hypertension, and lung growth. Dr. Reid is known for developing the Reid Index, a method of determining the degree of hypertrophy (enlargement) of the bronchial glands caused by chronic bronchitis.

Dr. Lillian Frances

In 1941, Dr. Lillian Frances became the first woman to intern at Boston Children’s Hospital. She later became the first female to join the staff, retaining her privileges until 1968.

Photo of Dr. Frances
Dr. Frances

From the 1942 Boston Children’s Annual Report: “Dr. Lillian A. Frances, a graduate of Boston University, who had served as intern at the Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh, was the first woman intern to be appointed at the children’s hospital. Although the Board of Managers granted this privilege as a war time measure, it is hoped that it may become a permanent policy.”

Dr. Stella Van Praagh

Dr. Stella Van Praagh (1927-2006) was a world-renowned pediatric cardiologist and pathologist at Boston Children’s. Born in Greece, Dr. Van Praagh graduated from the School of Medicine at the University of Athens, Greece in 1952. In 1965, she and her husband, Richard, joined the staff at Boston Children’s Hospital.

A photo of Dr. Van Praagh in 1975, working with colleague Dr. MacDonald Dick III
Dr. Van Praagh with Dr. MacDonald Dick III

Dr. Van Praagh was the author of more than 100 scientific publications on pediatric cardiology, congenital heart pathology, and congenital heart surgery and received the Distinguished Achievement Award of the Society for Cardiovascular Pathology in 1999 and the Paul Dudley White Award of the American Heart Association in 2004.

A special thank you to Alina J. Morris, MLIS, archives program manager at Boston Children’s, for helping to pull together this list and accompanying photos.

Learn more about the extraordinary women and men behind Boston Children’s 150 Years Forward.

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