During her medical career, Dr. Harriet Pearson Dustan was involved in a series of innovations in the detection and treatment of hypertension. As a member of the noted Cleveland Clinic team, she was among the first to suggest that reducing dietary sodium could lower hypertension and cardiac risks. She was the second woman president of the American Heart Association, the first editor-in-chief of its journal, Hypertension, and the first woman on the Board of Governors of the American Board of Internal Medicine.
Harriet Dustan was born in 1920 in Craftsbury Common, Vermont, to Helen Paterson and William Lyon Dustan. She attended Craftsbury Academy before attending the University of Vermont, from which she earned both her undergraduate degree and later her doctor of medicine degree, in 1944. Dr. Dustan completed her internship at Mary Fletcher Hospitalnow the Medical Center Campus at Fletcher Allen Health Carein Burlington, Vermont, and her residency in internal medicine at Montreal's Royal Victoria Hospital. Returning to Burlington in 1946, she helped establish the medical student teaching program at Bishop DeGosbriand Hospital.
Dr. Dustan began her association with the Cleveland Clinic in 1948, when she joined the Research Division with doctors Irvine H. Page and Arthur C. Corcoran. She became a major force in the field of hypertension, helping to unlock its mechanisms and develop or investigate all the early anti-hypertensive agents, thus changing hypertension from a death sentence to a treatable disease. Her research included the effects of serotonin in constricting blood vessels, now also used in antidepressants; the role of the blood enzyme renin in hypertension; the effects of discontinuing anti-hypertensive medications in hypertensive patients; and the roles of sodium and obesity in hypertension. She was also part of the team that established selective renal arteriography, to track circulation in the kidneys, as the reference standard for renal hypertension.
From 1977 to 1987 Dr. Dustan was director of the Cardiovascular Research and Training Center at the University of Alabama School of Medicine. After three years there as Veterans Administration Distinguished Physician, she "retired" to Burlington, Vermont, where she became a visiting professor of Pharmacology and Medicine at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. She also served on the Advisory Panel of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health and helped prepare the first six Joint National Committee Reports on Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Pressure, establishing national clinical practice guidelines.
Dr. Dustan was the first woman on the Board of Governors of the American Board of Internal Medicine. From 1973 to 1979 she was an active member of the American Heart Association, and as president from 1976 to 1977 was only the second woman to hold that post. She chaired many committees of the American College of Physicians (ACP) Board of Regents from 1979 to 1984. She was named a master in 1977, laureate in 1991, and in 1994 received the ACP's John Phillips Memorial Award for outstanding work in clinical medicine.
Her other honors include the American Medical Association's Scientific Achievement Award, the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Council for High Blood Pressure Research, the American College of Cardiology's Distinguished Service Award, and honorary degrees from the University of Vermont, Cleveland State University, the Medical College of Pennsylvania, and St. Michael's College.
Following her death on June 27, 1999, Dr. Edward D. Frohlich, a colleague and scientist at the Alton Ochsner Medical Foundation, noted Dr. Dustan's keen intellect, delightful sense of humor, and service to humanity.