Dorothy Reed Mendenhall Biography (1874-1964)

obstetrician, medical researcher

Dorothy Reed Mendenhall was a well-respected researcher, obstetrician, and pioneer in methods of childbirth . She was the first to discover that Hodgkin's disease was not a form of tuberculosis, as had been thought. This finding received international acclaim. As a result of her work, the celltype characteristic of Hodgkin's disease bears her name. The loss of her first child due to poor obstetrics changed her research career to a lifelong effort to reduce infant mortality rates . Mendenhall's efforts paid off with standards being set for weight and height for children ages birth to six,and also in programs that stressed the health of both the mother and child in the birthing process.

Dorothy Reed Mendenhall, the last of three children, was born September 22, 1874, in Columbus, Ohio, to William Pratt Reed, a shoe manufacturer, and GraceKimball Reed, both of whom had descended from English settlers who came to America in the seventeenth century. Mendenhall attended Smith College and obtained a baccalaureate degree. Although she initially contemplated a career injournalism, Mendenhall's interest in medicine was inspired by a biology course she attended.

When they opened the school up to women, Mendenhall applied to Johns HopkinsMedical School in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1900, she was one of the first women to graduate from this school with a doctorate of medicine degree. The nextyear she received a fellowship in pathology at Johns Hopkins. While there, she taught bacteriology and performed research on Hodgkin's disease, which physicians then believed was a form of tuberculosis. She disproved this theory when she discovered a common link between diagnosed patients. She found that the blood of these patients carried a specific type of cell. The presence of these giant cells, now known as the Reed cell, distinctly identifies the disease. Mendenhall's work produced the first thorough descriptions, both verbal and illustrated, of the tissue changes that occur with Hodgkin's. She was the first to describe the disease's growth through several progressive states. Mendenhall determined that a patient's prognosis worsened with each successive stage. She incorrectly speculated, however, that the disease was a chronic inflammatory process. Her finding of the distinctive cell had world-wide importance and was a significant step forward in the understanding and treatment ofHodgkin's disease. Today, researchers know that Hodgkin's is a type of cancercharacterized by a progressive enlargement of the lymph nodes.

Because she felt that there were few opportunities for advancement at Johns Hopkins, Mendenhall transferred her work to Babies Hospital of New York, becoming the first resident physician there. In 1906, she married Charles Elwood Mendenhall and began to raise a family. She had four children, one who died afew hours after birth. This loss was to shape the rest of her career. Mendenhall undertook a study of infant mortality, that, when released, brought government attention to the problems of maternal and child health. To determine the extent of infant mortality in the United States, she obtained epidemiological data for the Wisconsin State Board of Health. A major problem she identified was the prevalence of malnutrition among children. In her efforts to remedy the problems of childbearing and childrearing, Mendenhall developedcorrespondence courses for new and prospective mothers. She also lectured togroups across Wisconsin and wrote bulletins on nutrition for the United States Department of Agriculture. Mendenhall's efforts helped create some of Wisconsin's first infant welfare clinics , particularly in Madison. In 1937, she was gratified when Madison had the lowest infant mortality rate in the UnitedStates.

While employed as a field lecturer for the Department of Home Economics at the University of Wisconsin, in 1918, Mendenhall initiated a nationwide effortin which all children under six years of age were weighed and measured. Thisproject helped establish standards for that normal, healthy children of theseages should weigh and how tall they should be. In 1926, Mendenhall undertooka study of birthing methods in Denmark, which had one of the lowest rates ofchildbirth complications. She later travelled to the country to gain firsthand information on their techniques, which included the utilization of specialized midwives and a reduced role of medical procedures. Through this, Mendenhall determined that there was too much medical intervention in normal childbirth, and that this intervention is often the source of health problems for the mother and child. She helped institute natural childbirth in the U.S. and also suggested that obstetrics become a specialty profession. From 1917 to 1936, Mendenhall also worked intermittently as a medical officer for the UnitedStates Children's Bureau. After her husband's death, she withdrew from publiclife. In her spare time she loved to read Marcus Aurelius. As a tribute to her dedication as a researcher, teacher, and physician, Smith College dedicated Sabin-Reed Hall in 1965. The hall honors Mendenhall and Florence Sabin, a fellow student at both Smith and Johns Hopkins. Mendenhall died July 31, 1964,in Chester, Connecticut, from heart disease.

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