Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Before They Knew Viral

Martha Wollstein, whose parents were Jewish immigrants from Germany, began her medical education when she was 16 years old. The Women’s Medical Society of the State of New York was also only 16 years old at that time, having been founded by Elizabeth Blackwell in 1868. Wollstein graduated in 1889, after which she began a medical internship at The Babies Hospital in New York City. When the two year internship was over, she was hired by the hospital as a pathologist.

In 1930, despite not having actively treated children nor having made any singularly ground-breaking discoveries, Wollstein was the first woman to be awarded membership in the American Pediatric Society. But, over the four decades since she had graduated from medical school, Wollstein had dedicated herself to studying the source, and possible treatments, of illnesses such as malaria, polio, tuberculosis and mumps to name a few.

Wollstein’s research career first focused on infant diarrhea, which seems benign but can be extremely dangerous. Her work caught the attention of established researchers. In 1906, Wollstein received the distinction of being appointed as an assistant at the prestigious Rockefeller Institute. Her research work at the Rockefeller Institute continued until 1920, and her output was extraordinary. Her 1918 research on mumps was considered particularly informative on the viral nature of the disease. In 1921, however, Wollstein went back to The Babies Hospital paying particular attention to diseases affecting children. In 1928, she was appointed head of the pediatric section of the New York Academy of Medicine.

By the time of  her retirement, Wollstein had authored an impressive 80 scientific papers. Having moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, she remained there  until shortly before her death. Wollstein passed away in 1939 at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital. In a sign of the times, her obituary noted that she “was also known as a pathologist”...an incredible understatement.

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