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Overlooked medical history: Women from Baltimore who saved children from a ‘death sentence’ | COMMENTARY

Dr. Hattie Alexander, a native of Baltimore and Johns Hopkins-trained pediatrician, developed an effective treatment for a lethal childhood disease in the late 1930s and 1940s.
Dr. Hattie Alexander, a native of Baltimore and Johns Hopkins-trained pediatrician, developed an effective treatment for a lethal childhood disease in the late 1930s and 1940s.(Columbia University)

Here’s a lost piece of history from the world of medical science: Two women, born in Baltimore a decade apart in the early 20th Century, survived the pandemic of 1918-1919, became researchers in a field dominated by men and saved countless children from a lethal disease.

There are no hometown memorials for either Dr. Hattie Alexander (born April 1901) or her partner in research, Grace Leidy (born October 1910), so I thought I’d create one with this column. Attention must be paid to these pioneers, and better late than never.

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The men and women now scrambling to save us from coronavirus build on generations of work by their ancestors in lab coats — some of them famous, most not so. When Hattie Alexander died in 1968, her obituary ran only nine paragraphs in The New York Times, 10 in The Baltimore Sun, though both described her as internationally recognized for having developed the first effective treatment for influenzal meningitis.

Until that time — the 1930s and early 1940s — that form of meningitis was almost always fatal to babies and children. This was before vaccines, before effective antibiotics. Alexander and Leidy’s treatment turned “pediatric bacterial meningitis from a certain death sentence into a condition with an 80 percent recovery rate,” according to a history from Columbia University’s hospital and medical school, where Dr. Alexander served as pediatrician and professor.

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Alexander and Leidy developed an antiserum, a treatment similar to the one researchers at Johns Hopkins and other institutions are working on now in the hopes of preventing the spread of coronavirus.

The concept is a fairly old one: Draw blood from patients who survive an infection and use it to prevent others, particularly our front-line nurses and physicians, from getting it. Survivors produce antibodies that ward off further infections. Doctors can pass along this new immunity by giving a transfusion to someone who might be exposed to the disease. Hopkins just received $3 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies, $1 million from the state of Maryland and approval of the Food and Drug Administration to continue testing a therapy that uses blood plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19.

While it’s not considered a long-term solution, this old-school method might do a lot of good until a vaccine becomes available.

Back to Alexander and Leidy.

In the late 1930s, at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, their work concentrated on infections in children, and specifically bacterial meningitis. Alexander and Leidy used an antiserum developed in inoculated rabbits to save children who had contracted Haemophilus influenzae, the cause of bacterial meningitis.

The antiserum Alexander developed was in time surpassed by antibiotics and, later, a vaccine, but for several years theirs was the most effective treatment, and in time childhood mortality from influenzal meningitis was practically eliminated.

Alexander and Leidy continued their research, going deep into bacterial genetics.

From the Columbia history: “As signs emerged that overuse could weaken the effect of antibiotics, Dr. Alexander and her research associate, Grace Leidy, demonstrated the role of genetic mutation in antibiotic resistance and turned their attention to analyses of DNA in H. influenza and, later, polio, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases.”

Where did these pioneers come from?

They came from Baltimore, though Sun librarian Paul McCardell and I were able to learn more about the doctor than her research associate.

Grace Leidy grew up in the city and, while the high school someone went to is a hugely important thing to know in Baltimore — sorry, we don’t know the one she attended.

However, we know that Leidy went to Hunter College, graduating in 1932 with a degree in biology. She then earned a master’s from Columbia and went to work in the hospital’s pathology lab. She had a long career fighting infections in children. She died in Pennsylvania in 2003 at the age of 92.

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Hattie Alexander was from a family of eight children. She attended Baltimore schools and Goucher College, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1923. It was the progressive era in America, and public health had become a priority. Alexander got a job as a bacteriologist with the U.S. Public Health Service in Washington. She also worked in the lab for what was then the Maryland Public Health Service.

That experience apparently helped her get into medical school at Johns Hopkins. By 1930, she had earned a medical degree, with a focus on pediatrics. She worked at Hopkins Hospital for a year before taking a job at Columbia and spent the rest of her life there as a professor and researcher. She was one of the first women to head a medical society, becoming president of the American Pediatric Society in 1964.

While Alexander and Leidy were both from Baltimore, it’s not known if the women knew each other while they lived here.

Hattie Alexander died of cancer in New York in 1968 at age 67.

At the time of her death, a colleague at Columbia called her a “creative scientist, compassionate physician, perceptive teacher, and seeker of truth — tough-minded and gentle, inquisitive, industrious, kind, determined, stubbornly tenacious . . .”

And good thing, too. There are men and women, born in the 1940s, who never heard of Hattie Alexander, and yet probably owe their lives to her truth-seeking, her stubborn tenaciousness. Those are vital traits in the men and women in lab coats, and key to the medical breakthroughs that save us all.

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