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P&S Journal

P&S Journal: Spring 1997, Vol.17, No.2
Faculty Remembered
Hattie E. Alexander 1901-1968

By Nicholas P. Christy'51

 This series, Faculty Remembered, features profiles of former faculty members at P&S. The author of the series is a 1951 P&S graduate and former professor of medicine. He is now special lecturer in medicine and writer-in-residence at P&S.

Hattie E. Alexander
Photo by Elizabeth Wilcox
 The McIntosh Era in pediatrics at P&S, 1931-60, (see P&S Journal, Winter 1995) is recognized as a high point in the history of the college and of American pediatrics. One of the department's brightest stars then was Hattie E. Alexander, professor of pediatrics from 1958 to 1966. Her career at P&S, from 1933 to 1966, illustrates several facets of the way things were in her time: how difficult it was for a woman to advance rapidly up the academic ladder; how much more she contributed to basic science than students knew; and how different a professor is from the official face she presents to medical students.

 Born in Baltimore, Dr. Alexander received all her formal education there: public schools, Goucher College (to which she won a scholarship), medical school at Johns Hopkins. Early interested in bacteria, she worked as a bacteriologist at the U.S. Public Health Service in Washington and Baltimore from 1923 to 1926 to finance her medical training. Taking her M.D. in 1930, she interned in pediatrics at Hopkins' Harriet Lane Home and at Babies Hospital in 1930-32. Appointed to Babies' honorific Holt Fellowship in Diseases of Children in 1932-34, she rose slowly through the faculty ranks, not becoming professor until 1958 at age 57.

 She brought extraordinary qualities to bear upon her investigative studies: a keen eye for soluble problems and great ingenuity in solving them; cool, balanced skepticism; unwavering insistence on accuracy and precision; and a seemingly limitless capacity for hard, meticulous work. Perfectly capable of operating alone, she also exhibited discriminatory wisdom in choosing able collaborators: Grace Leidy, Dr. Katherine Sprunt, electron microscopists, scientists at the Rockefeller Institute, Michael Heidelberger, and Erwin Chargaff. Concentrating from the start on infectious diseases of children, especially meningitis, she made a major contribution in her third published paper (1939), devising an anti-influenzal rabbit serum against H. influenzae type b, the causative organism of a then almost uniformly fatal meningitis in infants and children. Her antiserum reduced the mortality rate to 20 percent. When the advent of antibiotics made the antiserum obsolete, she quickly mastered their use against all the bacterial meningitides. Extending her therapeutic range, she worked with neurosurgeon Joseph Ransohoff on the neurological sequelae of H. influenzae meningitis: hydrocephalus, subdural effusions, etc. It was she who made the etiologic connection between H. influenzae and epiglottitis (croup).

 Late in her career--the 1950s and 60s--she became a pioneer in microbial genetics. She showed that DNA genetically controls the disease-producing traits of H. influenzae. Related studies enabled her to solve the problem of streptomycin-resistant H. influenzae. Turning to viruses, she demonstrated that the RNA of the poliovirus can independently infect human cells and hypothesized that the principles controlling microbial inheritance might apply also to the control of genetic traits in human cells. Dr. Alexander's published work, some 70 papers in the most prestigious journals, spanned 30 years, 1937-66.

 As a teacher she was equally effective. The notable feature of her 20 didactic pieces in pediatric textbooks and microbial treatises was that her chapters appeared in many successive editions of such volumes. Apparently their editors knew a good thing when they saw it, inviting her to revise her articles in issue after issue.

 In her bedside rounds at Babies Hospital Dr. Alexander evinced the characteristics that made her an outstanding scientist. Gentle with students, exigent with residents, she was endlessly skeptical. Again and again she would ask, "How do you know that?" "What makes you think so?" "What is your evidence?" At first the house staff found this relentless probing irksome. Some tried to deflect it with teasing humor, vastly entertaining to the students, less so to the professor. But in the end, residents came to recognize this grim insistence on accurate data as instructive and productive.

 Outwardly, Dr. Alexander seemed formal, serious, even stern. But very close to the surface lived a quite different person. She took a deep and steady interest in the lives of the residents and their families. As a member of the third-year faculty committee, in discussions of weak or failing medical students, she always found cogent reasons not to expel them.

 Recipient of many honors, awards, honorary degrees, and trusteeships, from P&S and several other institutions, she became the first woman president of the American Pediatric Society (1965), over which she presided in a manner described as "queenly."

 The loftiness and strength of her character were never more in evidence than in the stoical way she faced two potentially lethal illnesses late in her life. She died of metastatic mammary cancer in 1968 at the age of 67.


The writer acknowledges several former and present members of the Department of Pediatrics who provided reminiscences of Dr. Alexander: Dr. James Wolff, Dr. Melvin M. Grumbach, Dr. Ruth C. Harris, and Dr. Jerry C. Jacobs. Members of the administrative staff provided indispensable documentary materials: Martin Collins in the library and Kelly Jackson of the pediatrics alumni and development office. Bob Stewart, the department's archivist, lent the writer a useful book, "The McIntosh Era, 1931-1960," New York, Babies Hospital, 1960. This volume contains one of Dr. Alexander's representative papers, "Treatment of type-specific Hemophilus Influenzae infections in infancy and childhood," by Hattie E. Alexander, Catherine Ellis, and Grace Leidy, reprinted from the Journal of Pediatrics, Vol. 20, pp. 673-698, June 1942. The reprint is to be found on pages 253-279 of "The McIntosh Era," which also contains a list of citations to papers in the literature by members of the Babies Hospital staff. Dr. Alexander has more citations (57) than any other member of the pediatrics department. The book can be found in the Babies Hospital Library.

copyright ©, Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center

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