Dr. Mildred Stahlman helped save lives of premature infants for decades

Dr. Mildred Stahlman, a pioneering physician who helped save the lives of premature infants for decades and paved the way for modern neonatology, aiding countless babies born too early, died on July 27 at her home in Nashville, Tennessee. She was 99.

In the early 1950s, Dr. Stahlman, a pediatric cardiologist, was asked to care for a premature infant who struggled to breathe and was thought to be dying. This baby was Martha Lott, who credits Dr. Stahlman with saving her life. Working with limited resources, Dr. Stahlman placed Lott in an iron lung, a machine that helped her breathe and allowed her to recover.

This success led to further research and the launch of new treatments for respiratory lung diseases, a leading killer of premature babies. Dr. Stahlman used her knowledge of lung physiology to study the effects of lung disease on lambs, which helped advance the use of surfactants, a substance that aids in lung expansion and function. Her work in the 1960s and 1970s helped to transition negative pressure tanks, which can be painful for infants, to more gentle positive pressure machines.

Dr. Stahlman was a leader in the field of neonatology, serving as the director of the division of neonatology at Vanderbilt University from 1961 to 1989. She was known for her rigorous attention to detail and fierce dedication to her patients and students, which was both inspiring and intimidating to her mostly male colleagues, despite her small stature.

In addition to her medical research and clinical work, Dr. Stahlman was also concerned with the impacts of poverty and profit-driven models of medical care on public health, especially when it came to prematurity. She was a pioneer in the field of follow-up therapy for premature babies, checking on them into toddlerhood to monitor their development.

Dr. Stahlman was born in Nashville in 1922 and graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1943, among only three women of 47 students in her class. She later graduated from Vanderbilt Medical School in 1946. She served as president of the American Pediatric Society from 1984 to 1985 and received numerous awards for her work.

Dr. Stahlman was Martha Lott's godmother and remained close to her throughout her life. Today, Lott is a nurse at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, the same place where she was saved as an infant. Dr. Stahlman's work has saved countless lives and continues to resonate in the medical field today.

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