Dr. Elizabeth Dexter Hay, 1969, and Dr. Mary Ellen Avery, 1974

Dr. Elizabeth Hay, seated at the electron microscope, examines the first classroom microscope in America, devised by Oliver W. Holmes for demonstrations in histology in 1847.

Elizabeth D. Hay at electron microscope, circa 1960

In 1969, Elizabeth D. Hay (1927-2007) was named the Louise Foote Pfeiffer Professor of Embryology at Harvard Medical School, and she served as Chair of the Department of Anatomy (later the Department of Cell Biology) from 1975 to 1993. Dr. Hay was the first woman to be made a full professor in a preclinical department at Harvard Medical School. 

An expert in electron microscopy, one of Hay’s greatest scientific achievements was her breakthrough understanding of the extracellular matrix. Once thought to be an inert support structure, Hay found that it was in fact a complex structure that has a large role in determining cell properties. Hay’s research formed the foundation of an entire field of cell and developmental biology. In her later work, she researched cell-matrix interactions in cell migration and epithelial-mesenchymal transformations in embryos and in palatal and corneal development in the chick embryo.

Elizabeth Hay during her oral history interview with the JCSW
Elizabeth Hay during her oral history interview with the JCSW, 1982

Her collection is part of the Archives for Women in Medicine, and an exhibit, Leading by Teaching: Elizabeth D. Hay and Lynne M. Reid, celebrates Elizabeth D. Hay and Lynne M. Reid, two outstanding teachers, mentors, and champions for women in medicine.

Dr. Hay's 1982 oral history is also available to watch. In it, she explains how she combines teaching responsibilities with her laboratory research in developmental biology.

Portrait of Mary Ellen Avery
Mary Ellen Avery, circa 1960

Mary Ellen Avery (1927-2011) was the first woman physician-in-chief at Children's Hospital Boston and the first woman to chair a major department at Harvard Medical School. She was appointed the Thomas Morgan Rotch Professor of Pediatrics in 1974.

In the 1950s, Dr. Avery's research discovered the cause of respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) in premature babies: the lack of lung surfactant, a foamy fluid which creates surface tension and allows the lungs to inflate. Because of her efforts, a treatment was developed for RDS and she is credited with decreasing the number of infant deaths from RDS in the United States to 860 annually, down from almost 10,000 per year in 1970.


The Forum of Senior Women Professors
A photograph of the Harvard Medical School Forum of Senior Women Professors. Pictured from left to right are: Elizabeth Hay, Mary Ellen Avery, Alice Huang, Lynne Reid, and Priscilla Schaffer, circa 1990.

Dr. Avery was a mentor to hundreds ot young physicians and was deditcated to improving neonatal care. 

She established the Joint Program in Neonatology (JPN), a training, patient care, and research program which formed “one nursery in three locations:” Children’s Hospital, Beth Israel Hospital (now Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center), and the Boston Hospital for Women (now Brigham and Women’s Hospital).

A 1982 oral history explores her research, her role as mentor and teach to medical students, interns, and residents. Her collection is part of the AWM and an exhibit explores her collection and life: Mary Ellen Avery: Highlights from Her Collection.

Early Faculty
Dr. Elizabeth Dexter Hay, 1969, and Dr. Mary Ellen Avery, 1974