Dr. Mary Ellen Beck Wohl was associate director of the general clinical research center at Children's Hospital Boston, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. Since the 1960s, when she first joined the university, Dr. Wohl specialized in the respiratory diseases of children and was a leader in the field of clinical research on cystic fibrosis. She developed a number of tests to evaluate the function of the lungs in young children.
Mary Ellen Beck was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1932. Her father Claude Beck was a surgeon and professor of cardiovascular surgery at Western Reserve University (later Case Western), and her mother Ellen Manning Beck was a surgical nurse. As she was growing up, medicine was often discussed in the family at the dinner table, and both she and her younger sister trained as physicians.
In 1954, Beck graduated magna cum laude from Radcliffe College with a bachelor of arts degree. She had rebelled against the family interest in medicine as an undergraduate and studied history and literature, but she also took pre-medical courses and organic chemistry as part of a more general education. When she decided not to study for a Ph.D. in history she was well prepared to apply to medical school instead. After graduating Radcliffe, she enrolled at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.
Beck graduated with her doctor of medicine degree in 1958, and went on to an internship at Bellevue Hospital in New York. In 1959 she became junior assistant resident in pediatrics at Babies' Hospital in the city, and was made senior assistant resident two years later. In 1962, she took up a research fellowship in physiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, partly to be near her husband Dr. Martin Wohl who was completing a residency there. That same year, she joined Children's Hospital Boston as a fellow in medicine. Dr. Mary Ellen Beck Wohl remained affiliated with the university and Children's Hospital, specializing in respiratory disease in children, especially asthma and cystic fibrosis, and lung growth and disease.
In 1967 she and her husband adopted a son, Alexander, and in 1970 a daughter, Laura. In 1980, Dr. Wohl was named chief of the division of respiratory diseases at Children's Hospital. Beginning in 1985 she ran the cystic fibrosis center at the hospital and trained 60 fellows in pediatric pulmonology in the program she founded and developed. In 2002 Dr. Wohl retired from the position and was named division chief emerita.
Dr. Wohl was a member of the American Thoracic Society and the American Academy of Pediatrics and served on committees for both societies. She also served on the editorial board of The American Review of Respiratory Diseases. She held visiting professorships at universities in Columbia, Australia, and Taiwan, and was a highly regarded teacher and clinician.
Dr. Wohl served on a number of national and regional committees as well as the board of advisors at Harvard Medical School. From 1993 to 1996 she was a member of the faculty council overseeing the Promotions and Reappointments Committee addressing women in medicine. Concerned that women faced career challenges she never knew of, Dr. Wohl was especially grateful for the opportunities she had early in her life. Beginning with modest ambitions to work alongside her husband and balance a fulfilling career with raising a family, Dr. Wohl became a leader in the field of children's respiratory disease and the use of clinical trials in cystic fibrosis research. Born in the Great Depression and attending medical school in the 1950s, Dr. Wohl believed she "profited so much from not being visible for many years in the career I had chosen... I was able to progress at my own pace in a field I developed."
Dr. Wohl became a respected specialist in the field of lung diseases of children, as well as developing a number of innovative techniques to evaluate the function of the lungs in infants. In 2001, her contributions were acknowledged with the American Thoracic Society Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2002 she received the Edwin L. Kendig Award from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Chest Physicians for outstanding achievements in pediatric pulmunology. She died in October, 2009.