MARY ELLEN WOHL
Dr. Mary Ellen Wohl, pioneer in treating children’s lung disease
At Children’s Hospital, where she served as chief of respiratory diseases for 22 years and director of its Cystic Fibrosis Center for 19, Dr. Mary Ellen Wohl became known internationally for her breakthrough research in pediatric pulmonary diseases.
“Dr. Wohl was the grand dame of pediatric pulmonary diseases,’’ Dr. James Mandell, Children’s chief executive officer, said in a statement. Her work “helped validate a number of regimens now the standard of care.’’
“As a doctor in the trenches,’’ he said, “she worked tirelessly to optimize care and outcomes for children with cystic fibrosis and, more recently, those with HIV infections, and developed several multicenter clinical trials of new treatment for those diseases.’’
Dr. Wohl, who was beloved by her patients and the doctors she worked with and mentored, died Oct. 8 at Rogerson House in Jamaica Plain. Her husband, Dr. Martin Wohl, said she “died suddenly, presumably from cardiac arrhythmia, and had suffered from progressive dementia for the last five years.’’
Dr. Wohl was 77. The couple lived in Brookline.
Dr. David Nathan, former physician in chief at Children’s, believes Dr. Wohl was “the first woman [there] to be recruited as a division chief. She was a tall woman with a strong face and had had tremendous training at the Harvard School of Public Health,’’ he said. “She had a combination of a deep respect for basic science and physiology and wonderful clinical skills.’’
Dr. Jeffrey M. Drazen, editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, said she developed or shaped the development of lung function tests for children too young to have the tests done on adults. “She built a chemical and research cystic fibrosis program that led the country in lung function outcomes,’’ he said.
Dr. Wohl’s death was a poignant reminder to the families who lost children to cystic fibrosis of her loving care and expertise.
In Kingston, John and Carole Sutherland recalled the care Dr. Wohl gave their daughter, Laura, when she was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at age 9.
“Dr. Wohl gave what I recall as real doctoring to our daughter,’’ John Sutherland said. “We always knew Laura was getting the best care in the world. Dr. Wohl treated the whole person: Laura’s emotions and her spirit. She was like the grandmother she never had. She loved Laura, and Laura loved her.
“If Laura needed another specialist,’’ he said, “Dr. Wohl would call the head of the department.’’
Dr. Wohl treated Laura until she died from the disease at 19. She was among the mourners at Laura’s funeral and the Sutherlands’ home. “She was amazing,’’ he said.
Colleagues echoed that description. They spoke of her scientific brilliance and her human touch during her four decades at Children’s and her teaching at Harvard Medical School.
“Mary Ellen was a force of nature,’’ said Dr. Craig Gerard, chief of respiratory diseases at Children’s, whom Dr. Wohl trained. “She was one of the pioneers in the development of infant pulmonary function tests in the ’70s and ’80s and one of the leading investigators in the development of a drug, Pulmozyme, that thins the mucous in cystic fibrosis.’’
Her work helped greatly to give cystic fibrosis patients more hope for a longer life, Gerard said. Children’s recently created and endowed the Mary Ellen Beck Wohl Professorship in Pediatric Respiratory Diseases.
Dr. Richard J. Grand, professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and program director of the clinical and translational study unit at Children’s, also worked with Dr. Wohl. Her patient care knew no limits, he said.
Grand recalled the time one of her older patients was not responding to an antibiotic and how she was “on the phone trying to find drugs still in trial that she would be able to get for compassionate use. When she couldn’t find one, she actually wept.’’
Others told of her giving money for food to her patients and offering a place to stay to a fellow in her program and his family. Her husband said she once brought a six-pack of beer to one of her weakened older patients. “For the most part,’’ he said, “beer is bad for the lungs but good for nourishment.’’
Dr. Wohl’s science was brilliant, but it was her heart that captured people.
“Mary Ellen was a leading scientist, but her biggest contributions were teaching the people she was mentoring not only how to do science but how to be human beings,’’ said Dr. Jeffrey Fredberg, professor of physiology and bioengineering at Harvard School of Public Health, who did research with Dr. Wohl. “She taught us the joy and the culture of science.
“At first,’’ he said, “she seemed intimidating, but even to her colleagues, Mary Ellen was like a grandmother. She pulled many of us back from the brink when we felt our careers were on the rocks.’’
Dr. Wohl’s research contributions earned her a number of citations, among them from the National Institutes of Health and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
Mary Ellen Beck was born into a medical family in Cleveland. Her father, Claude Beck, was a cardiac surgeon and her mother, Ellen (Manning) a surgical nurse.
Young Mary Ellen told friends she rebelled at having a medical career because of that. In 1954, she graduated from Radcliffe College with a bachelor of arts degree in history. But, she had taken some premedical courses.
She had a change of heart and enrolled at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, where she met her future husband. She received her medical degree from Columbia in 1958 and did her internship at Bellevue Hospital in New York and her residency at Babies’ Hospital there.
The Wohls were married in 1961 and came to Boston, so Martin Wohl could do his senior residency at Massachusetts General Hospital. Mary Ellen started at Children’s as a fellow in 1962.
In 2001, Dr. Wohl’s contributions to medicine were acknowledged with the American Thoracic Society Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2002, she received the Edwin L. Kendig Award, a joint award from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Chest Physicians for outstanding achievements in pediatric pulmonology.
Her other awards are human ones.
“Dr. Wohl saved my life,’’ said Ayelet Sternberg of Newton, who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis in her native Costa Rica at age 2. She had a double lung transplant in Boston on her 38th birthday in 2003. She had arrived in Boston with her husband five years earlier when her illness took over her life and she was hospitalized at Children’s.
“I was in the ICU for three weeks, and Dr. Wohl would stay by my bed until late at night to monitor everything being done for me. You have to be sick enough and healthy enough to tolerate a transplant. It’s a thin line. I don’t know whether any other doctor could have brought me to that point.’’
In addition to her husband, Dr. Wohl leaves a son, Alexander of St. Paul; a daughter, Laura Hornbrook of Quincy; and four grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 2:30 p.m. Friday in Memorial Church at Harvard University.