The Discovery of Cystic Fibrosis

In the 18th century, a parent’s lament was the phrase: “Woe to the child with the salty kiss.” Babies whose skin had a salty taste rarely lived. The fact that this phrase is rarely heard today is due to the discovery of Dr. Dorothy Andersen.

Dorothy Andersen grew up in North Carolina and Vermont. Her father was a Danish immigrant to the U.S. who died when she was 13. She studied to be a medical doctor and interned as a surgeon, but was denied a career in surgery due to her gender. She then decided to follow a career in pathology. As fate would have it, Dr. Andersen’s move to a pathology career is why we no longer hear about the fate of children with a salty kiss.

As a pathologist, Dr. Andersen performed autopsies of children’s hearts. She kept specimens to see if she could detect disease patterns. She then trained physicians in what to look for so that children with defective conditions could be treated.

During a routine autopsy, she was intrigued by a disease pattern which left her to review prior autopsy records. She discovered a distinctive disease pattern unknown at the time. She called it cystic fibrosis.

Once the disease patterns were identified, she then explored how to identify it in a child. Her colleague developed the sweat test that is still in use today. What was once a fatal condition in babies is now treatable permitting survival into adulthood.

While Dr. Andersen has been recognized by her professional colleagues, she remains a hidden hero to most of us. A woman who was denied her first choice of a career became a savior for countless babies who would have died if she hadn’t made the observations that led to the identification and treatment of cystic fibrosis.

Hidden heroes are undeterred by the challenges they confront. They make the most of their talent even when denied their original hopes for their future. Dr. Andersen would undoubtedly have made a great surgeon, but would her life’s legacy have been the same?

* * *

            “I think it’s remarkable that a woman made these tremendous strides in 1938, and I would imagine it was hard for her work to be accepted in that era.” – Dr. Emily DiMango (cystic fibrosis professional)

How To Use

Useful guides for incorporating messages into discussion.