Alexander, Hattie (1901–1968)

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Alexander, Hattie (1901–1968)

American microbiologist, pediatrician, and researcher, who was an early pioneer in DNA research. Born Hattie Elizabeth Alexander in Baltimore, Maryland, on April 5, 1901; died in New York City on June 24, 1968; daughter of William B. and Elsie M. (Townsend) Alexander; graduated A.B., Goucher College, 1923; M.D., Johns Hopkins, 1930; never married; no children; lived with Elizabeth Ufford.

First woman to serve as president of the American Pediatric Society; discovered the first cure for pediatric influenza meningitis; one of the first researchers to note bacterial resistance to antibiotics; collaborated with Grace Leidy, noting changes in DNA, which was very early research in this field; received the E. Mead Johnson Award for Research in Pediatrics (1942), the prestigious Stevens Triennial Prize (1954), and the Oscar B. Hunter Memorial Award of the American Therapeutic Society (1961).

Hattie Alexander was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on April 5, 1901. Her ancestors on both sides of her family were Scottish. Energetic and curious, she was determined to continue her education after graduating from high school. At Goucher College, Alexander was an average student, more interested in athletics than in intellectual pursuits. Nonetheless, the Goucher yearbook of 1923 summed up what would be her lifetime attributes: "Ambition fires her; hygiene claims her; kindness portrays her." Alexander's strong interest in hygiene led her to study bacteriology and physiology. After graduation, she worked as a bacteriologist for several years to save money for medical school. At the Johns Hopkins Medical School, she was a brilliant student, graduating with an M.D. in 1930.

Alexander's first job was at the Harriet Lane Home in Baltimore, where she developed a lifelong interest in influenza meningitis. In 1931, she interned at Babies Hospital of the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, and upon completion of her service she accepted an appointment in the pediatrics department. A superb teacher as well as a researcher and medical doctor, Alexander emphasized skepticism and disbelief as a prerequisite to medical progress. She made her students defend their diagnostic decisions. At bedside discussions, she frequently used recurring questions such as, "What is your evidence?" or "What makes you think so?" Alexander's remarkably successful professional life at Columbia-Presbyterian culminated in her promotion to full professor in 1958.

Alexander's first research studies at the Harriet Lane Home in Baltimore dealt with the diagnosis and treatment of bacterial meningitis, a disease that had caused great frustration because it did not respond to anti-influenza serum prepared in horses. Knowing that researchers at the Rockefeller Institute had prepared a highly effective serum for the treatment of pneumonia in rabbits, Alexander applied this technique to the previously intractable problem of developing an effective therapy for meningitis. Working with the immunochemist Michael Heidelberger, she immunized rabbits with large doses of influenza bacilli. In this way, she developed a complete cure for infants critically ill with influenza meningitis. Her work, published in 1939, was the first successful treatment of this previously fatal disease. After this success, Alexander began experiments to discern how various drug treatments would combat influenza meningitis. First she worked with sulfa drugs before moving on to other antibiotics. After years of painstaking research, she also produced therapeutic strategies that significantly reduced the death rate of patients with influenza meningitis.

Alexander was one of the first medical researchers to note the rapid development of resistance of influenza bacilli cultures to antibiotic drugs. Her scientific curiosity led her into an intensive study of the new area of microbiological genetics. Unlike many others who responded with skepticism or indifference, Alexander immediately recognized the great importance of the 1944 Rockefeller Institute report detailing artificial changes in hereditary characteristics of pneumococci by means of the genetic constituent that would later be known as DNA. Collaborating with Grace Leidy , she developed techniques that produced hereditary changes in the DNA of Hemophilus influenzae in 1950. This research provided a highly successful confirmation and served as an extension of the work done in microbiological genetics at the Rockefeller Institute in the 1940s.

After her retirement in 1966, Alexander continued to lecture and serve as a consultant to the Presbyterian Hospital. She remained impressively productive, incorporating the latest insights in genetic research into her investigations of several bacterial species and a number of viruses. She also continued teaching in the wards, where she passed on her vast store of clinical knowledge to a generation of pediatricians. Her clinical studies in this stage of her career included tuberculosis, then regarded as a disease about to disappear from modern civilization.

Alexander published over 150 papers during her lifetime. The merit of her work was widely recognized and she was awarded the E. Mead Johnson Award for Research in Pediatrics in 1942, the prestigious Stevens Triennial Prize in 1954, and the Oscar B. Hunter Memorial Award of the American Therapeutic Society in 1961. In 1964, Hattie Alexander was chosen the first woman to serve as president of the American Pediatric Society.

Alexander had many interests outside medicine. She was especially fond of music, travel, and the growing of rare, exotic flowers. She lived in Port Washington, New York, with her companion of many years, Dr. Elizabeth Ufford . Both women loved boating, and the residents of Port Washington were used to seeing the two zoom past in their speedboat. Having made important scientific contributions to the 20th century, Hattie Alexander died of cancer in New York City on June 24, 1968.


McIntosh, Rustin. "Hattie Alexander," in Pediatrics. Vol. 42, no. 3, September, 1968, p. 544.

Turner, Lenore. "From C Student to Winning Scientist," in Goucher Alumnae Quarterly. Winter, 1962, pp. 18–20.

Vare, Ethlie Ann, and Greg Ptacek. Mothers of Invention: From the Bra to the Bomb: Forgotten Women & Their Unforgettable Ideas. NY: William Morrow, 1988.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Alexander, Hattie (1901–1968)

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