Hattie Alexander Biography (1901-1968)

microbiologist, pediatrician

Hattie Alexander, a dedicated pediatrician, medical educator, and researcherin microbiology, won international recognition for deriving a serum to combatinfluenzal meningitis, a common disease that previously had been nearly always fatal to infants and young children. Alexander subsequently investigated microbiological genetics and the processes whereby bacteria, through genetic mutation, acquire resistance to antibiotics. In 1964, as president of the American Pediatric Society, she became one of the first women to head a nationalmedical association.

Hattie Elizabeth Alexander was born on April 5, 1901, in Baltimore, Maryland.She was the second of eight children born to Elsie May (Townsend) Alexanderand William Bain Alexander, a merchant. Alexander attended Baltimore schoolsand then enrolled in Goucher College in Baltimore on a partial scholarship. She excelled at sports but was only an average student in her course work, which included bacteriology and physiology. Alexander graduated from Goucher with an A.B. degree in 1923. For the next three years she worked as a bacteriologist for the U.S. Public Health Service laboratory in Washington, D.C., and at a branch laboratory of the Maryland Public Health Service. Impressed with her research experience, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore admitted her totheir medical program. Alexander performed exceptionally at Johns Hopkins, earning her M.D. in 1930.

As an intern at the Harriet Lane Home of Johns Hopkins Hospital from 1930 to1931, Alexander became interested in influenzal meningitis. The source of thedisease was Hemophilus influenzae, a bacteria that causes inflammation of the meninges, the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. In 1931 Alexander began a second internship at the Babies Hospital of the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City. There, she witnessed first-hand the futility of medical efforts to save babies who had contracted influenzal meningitis.

Beginning in 1933, with her medical training complete, Alexander held a series of pediatric, teaching, and research positions at the Babies Hospital, theVanderbilt Clinic of the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, and Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons. She was appointed an adjunctassistant pediatrician in 1933 and an assistant attending pediatrician in 1938 by the Babies Hospital, and she held parallel posts at the Vanderbilt Clinic; she would be promoted to attending pediatrician at the Babies Hospital andthe Vanderbilt Clinic in 1951. At Columbia, she held a fellowship in children's diseases from 1932 to 1934 and became an assistant in children's diseasesin 1933 and an instructor in children's diseases in 1935.

Alexander's early research focused on deriving a serum (the liquid componentof blood, in which antibodies are contained) that would be effective againstinfluenzal meningitis. Serums derived from animals that have been exposed toa specific disease-producing bacterium often contain antibodies against the disease and can be developed for use in immunizing humans against it. Alexander knew that attempts to develop an anti-influenzal serum from horses had beenunsuccessful. The Rockefeller Institute in New York City, however, had beenable to prepare a rabbit serum for the treatment of pneumonia, another bacterial disease. Alexander therefore experimented with rabbit serums, and by 1939she was able to announce the development of a rabbit serum effective in curing infants of influenzal meningitis.

In the early 1940s, Alexander experimented with the use of drugs in combination with rabbit serum in the treatment of influenzal meningitis. Within the next two years, she saw infant deaths due to the disease drop by 80%. With improvements in diagnosis and the standardization of treatment, the mortality rate fell still further in later years. In recognition of her research on influenzal meningitis, Alexander received the E. Mead Johnson Award for research inpediatrics from the American Academy of Pediatrics in 1942 and the ElizabethBlackwell Award from the New York Infirmary in 1956; and, in 1961, she became the first woman recipient of the Oscar B. Hunter Memorial Award of the American Therapeutic Society.

Alexander's research in supplementary drug treatment for influenzal meningitis led her to the study of antibiotics (antibacterial substances generally produced by a bacterium or a fungus). As was evident from the cultures of influenza bacilli utilized in Alexander's research, antibiotics do not provide a permanent defense against bacteria. Alexander was among the first to recognizethat it was through genetic mutation that bacteria are able to develop resistance to antibiotics, and she became a pioneer in research on DNA, the nucleicsubstance that bears an organism's genetic blueprint. By 1950, due to lab work conducted in association with Grace Leidy, Alexander was able to alter thegenetic code of Hemophilus influenzae by manipulating its DNA. Alexander subsequently extended this line of research to other bacteria and to viruses.

In addition to her hospital service, research, and teaching duties, Alexanderalso served on the influenza commission under the United States Secretary ofWar from 1941 to 1945, served as consultant to the New York City Departmentof Health from 1958 to 1960, and joined the medical board of the PresbyterianHospital of the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in 1959. After chairingthe governing council of the American Pediatric Society from 1956 to 1957 and serving as vice president from 1959 to 1960, she became president of the society in 1964.

During her career she published some 150 papers as well as chapters in textbooks on microbiology and pediatrics and delivered many honorary lectures at medical and academic institutions. Alexander lived with her companion, Dr. Elizabeth Ufford, in Port Washington, N.Y. In her spare time, Alexander enjoyed music, boating, travel, and growing exotic flowers. She died from cancer on June 24, 1968, at the age of 67.

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