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Dr. Mary Ellen Beck Wohl

Year of Birth / Death

1932 - 2009

Medical School

Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons



Career Path

Education: Teaching
Pediatric medicine
Internal medicine: Pulmonology
Dr. Mary Ellen Beck Wohl


My father was one of the original cardiac surgeons and professor of cardiac surgery at Western Reserve University (later Case Western). My mother was a surgical nurse. Medicine was discussed often at the dinner table as all three girls in our family were growing up. Medicine was considered a form of general education. I rebelled in college, studied history and literature but after thinking about a career as a Ph.D. in history, I felt that I wanted to have more to do with people. I had taken pre-medical courses during college and organic chemistry one summer so I was prepared to apply. I made a good choice.


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.

Question and Answer

What was your biggest obstacle?

I think I was very lucky. Part of that luck was being born in 1932 when no one else was born. I shared that luck with my sister, born in 1933, who also became a physician. (She died at age 58 of colon cancer.) We had the choice of colleges, of medical schools and of residency programs. I also had a superb mentor during my fellowship in physiology and during most of my development as a clinician scientist, namely Jere Mead, a distinguished respiratory physiologist. I think that my career was relatively obstacle free although promotion to full professor took a very long time.

How do you make a difference?

I am very proud of the training program in pediatric pulmonology which I built and the fact that 40 of the 60 fellows I in some way trained returned for my retirement from being division chief, came to the talks and came to the dinner. I think I have been supportive of careers of both scientists and clinicians. Although I did not turn to molecular biology when it might have been appropriate to make such a switch, I chose rather to develop clinical research and have been a leader in clinical trials applicable to cystic fibrosis. When I took over that program in 1985, I did it more or less as a social service at Children's [Hospital Boston]. However, I soon became aware that good clinical research was needed in that field, that multi-center clinical trials would be needed and turned to clinical research where my physiologic skills might be useful. I also am proud of having developed some of tests which could be applied to infants.

Who was your mentor?

I had a superb mentor in the physiology department at the Harvard School of Public Health, Professor Jere Mead. He took pediatrics seriously and helped me develop tools to make measurements of lung function in infants. He provided a wealth of ideas and solutions to problems. He was responsible in large part for my initial NIH funding. When I was division chief at Children's, he consulted one day a week and extended his influence to a generation of fellows in our program.

How has your career changed over time?

I have over time become more of a clinician and more interested in clinical research. In retirement I attend on the Pulmonary In-patient service three months a year and still have an interest in both science and clinical work. From exposure, I have learned some molecular biology but have a renewed interest in the properties of airway smooth muscle and hope to work with Jeffrey Fredberg on its properties at the Harvard School of Public Health in the near future.