Pediatrician, microbiologist, and educator Hattie Alexander won international acclaim for developing a serum to combat influenzal meningitis, a common childhood disease that is nearly always fatal to infants and young children. She pioneered the study of bacterial mutation and resistance to antibiotics, and in 1964 she became one of the first women to head a national medical association as president of the American Pediatric Society.
Born in Baltimore in 1901, Hattie Alexander loved athletics but was not an outstanding academic student early in her education. Graduating in 1923 from Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland, she worked as a bacteriologist for three years for the U.S. Public Health Service and Maryland Public Health Service. Based on her research experience, she was admitted to the medical school of Johns Hopkins University where she excelled in her studies, receiving her M.D. in 1930.
During the next three years she continued her training at Johns Hopkins Hospital, the Babies Hospital and Vanderbilt Clinic of the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, and Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Appointed an adjunct assistant pediatrician at Babies Hospital (now called Babies' and Children's Hospital of New York) and the Vanderbilt Clinic in 1933, she remained affiliated with Columbia for the rest of her career. She became assistant attending pediatrician in 1938 and attending pediatrician in 1951, and was appointed associate professor in 1948. She was finally appointed full professor in 1958, aged 57.
Alexander first became interested in influenzal meningitis while interning at Johns Hopkins Hospital in the early 1930s. Although attempts to use an anti-influenzal serum derived from horses had failed, she noted the success of researchers using a rabbit serum to treat pneumonia. Experimenting with rabbit serums, by 1939 Alexander had developed an effective cure for influenzal meningitis. She continued to refine the treatment through the early 1940s, and within a short period infant mortality from this disease was virtually eliminated.
In recognition of her achievement, Alexander received the E. Mead Johnson Award from the American Academy of Pediatrics in 1942, the Elizabeth Blackwell Award from the New York Infirmary in 1956, and in 1961 she was the first woman to receive the Oscar B. Hunter Memorial Award of the American Therapeutic Society.
Her work with influenzal meningitis led her to study antibiotics, and she made considerable progress in understanding the genetic mutation of bacteria to develop resistance to antibiotics. Throughout her career she remained active in public health, serving on the influenza commission under the secretary of war during World War II, and as consultant to the New York City Department of Health from 1958 to 1960.
Dr. Alexander chaired the governing council of the American Pediatric Society from 1956 to 1957, served as vice president from 1959 to 1960, and was elected president in 1964. She was active in many other pediatric and professional associations, and was a prolific scholar, publishing 150 academic papers and delivering numerous honorary lectures.
Alexander officially retired, as professor emeritus at Columbia, in 1966. Despite a battle with cancer remained active in her field until she died two years later at the age of 67. Her colleagues remembered her fondly for her professional achievements and hands-on teaching style, as well as her love of music, boating, and gardening.