Andersen, Dorothy Hansine (1901–1963)

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Andersen, Dorothy Hansine (1901–1963)

American pathologist and pediatrician who discovered and named the hereditary disease cystic fibrosis. Born Dorothy Hansine Andersen in Asheville, North Carolina, on May 15, 1901; died in New York, New York, on March 3, 1963; only child of Hans Peter and Mary Louise (Mason) Andersen (a descendant of Sir John Wentworth, colonial governor of New Hampshire, and of Benning Wentworth, for whom the town of Bennington, Vermont was named); graduated from Saint Johnsbury Academy, 1918; graduated from Mount Holyoke College, 1922; graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical School, 1926; interned at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New York; received M.D. degree from Columbia University, 1935; never married; no children.

By the time Dorothy Hansine Andersen reached the age of 19, both of her parents had died and she could not claim a single close relative. Even so, she graduated from Mount Holyoke College and set her sights on a medical career. Living and working according to her own dictates and often flaunting convention, Andersen would leave an indelible mark on the field of pediatric medicine.

While still in medical school at Johns Hopkins University, Andersen had two research papers published in Contributions to Embryology. After graduation in 1926, she taught anatomy for a year before beginning an internship in surgery at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New York. Denied both a residency in surgery and an appointment in pathology because she was a woman, Andersen took a position in the department of pathology at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. There she began research on the relationship of the endocrine glands to the female reproductive cycle. In 1930, she was appointed an instructor in pathology, and, in 1935, received her M.D. degree.

From Columbia, Andersen moved to Babies Hospital at the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, where as a pathologist she researched congenital heart defects in infants. Studying cardiac embryology and anatomy by analyzing infants' hearts with various defects, she later shared her expertise with the pioneers in open-heart surgery. By 1950, the innovative training program she devised, utilizing her collection of heart defects as illustrations, was mandatory for all pediatric heart surgeons at Babies Hospital, and was also presented in seminars at other hospitals.

In 1935, Andersen's work found new direction with the discovery of lesions in the pancreas of a child who had died of celiac disease. Exhaustive research into medical literature and autopsy files for similar cases finally produced a clear picture of a previously unrecognized disease, which she named cystic fibrosis. In 1938, she presented a paper on her findings at a joint meeting of the American Pediatric Society and the Society for Pediatric Research. She later received the E. Mead Johnson Award for her discovery.

Andersen went on to research methods for diagnosing cystic fibrosis and search for a way to save young patients from what, at that time, was almost certain death. Using self-acquired skills as a chemist and a clinical pediatrician, she mastered techniques for obtaining duodenal fluid and analyzing its enzymes, which ultimately allowed her to diagnose the disease. She published a number of papers during the 1940s on treating respiratory tract infections in cystic fibrosis and on the genetics of this hereditary disease. Her research group also developed a simple, definitive test to diagnose the disease, which replaced the more complicated one she had pioneered.

In her personal life, Andersen was a controversial figure. With hair and clothing usually askew, a cigarette dangling permanently from the corner of her mouth, she eschewed prescribed feminine behavior and enjoyed canoeing, swimming, skiing, and hiking. She did much of the work at her farm in the Kittatinny range of northwest New Jersey with her own hands, adding a chimney and fireplace, replacing the roof, and building some of the furniture. Although not formally associated with any feminist organizations, she fought for professional equality and spoke out forcefully against sex discrimination.

In 1952, when she was named chief of pathology at Babies Hospital, her colleagues were split in their loyalties. Some were almost fanatical in their devotion, citing her outstanding teaching skills and the support she provided for research projects. Detractors criticized her disregard for convention, her lack of personal grooming, and the untidy condition of her laboratory. Controversy aside, in 1958, Andersen became a full professor at the College of Physicians and Surgeons. In 1959, she published her last paper on cystic fibrosis in a new category of patients—young adults. Formerly, all patients of the disease had died in childhood. Her final years also included more research on cardiac malformations.

Andersen's numerous honors included the Borden Award for research in nutrition, a citation for outstanding performance from Mount Holyoke College, and the distinguished service medal of the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. She died of lung cancer in New York City on March 3, 1963.


Olsen, Kirsten. Remember the Ladies. Pittstown, NJ: Main Street Press, 1988.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Andersen, Dorothy Hansine (1901–1963)

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