Dr. Dorothy Andersen: Cystic Fibrosis Pioneer

Dorothy Andersen was born in North Carolina in 1901. When her father died when she was 13, she took over the care of her invalid mother. She went to college while caring for her mother. She graduated from Mount Holyoke with two degrees in Zoology and Chemistry. She then went to medical school at Johns Hopkins.

Dr. Andersen had hoped to become a surgeon but was denied due to her gender. At the time women weren’t accepted in medical fields where direct face-to-face patient treatment was involved. Many women became pathologists as did Dr. Andersen.

While Dr. Andersen was performing autopsies on children, she discovered a discrepancy in what the attending physicians said was the cause of the disease. The damage she saw in the lung and pancreas didn’t match up with what was diagnosed as celiac disease.

She believed that a new disease was involved. She called it cystic fibrosis (CF). She was then able to diagnose CF in patients before it was too late. Following that, she discovered a treatment regimen with diet and vitamins. One of the major findings was a recessive gene leading to CF tendencies.

Dr. Andersen made a vital discovery in testing for CF in sweat. She discovered that people with CF have higher levels of chloride in their sweat. That was especially useful in testing for CF in babies as young as 10 days old.

In spite of all of her achievements, she wasn’t made an assistant professor until she was over 40 years of age. Her advancement further in the academy was much slower than what would be expected.

Dr. Andersen was shy and her hobbies were not those normally associated with females: carpentry, canoeing, and hiking. She never married. She was a lifelong smoker and died of lung cancer at the age of 61.

Dr. Andersen was a true hidden hero. Those in medical practice today are often not familiar with her contributions.

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“That breath that you just took…. that’s a gift.” – Rob Bell

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