Dr. Myrtelle May Canavan had a long and distinguished career as a pathologist, neuropathologist, and curator of an anatomical museum. In addition to being one of the earliest woman pathologists and neuropathologists in the United States, she also identified the condition now known as "Canavan's disease," a progressive degenerative disorder of the central nervous system characterized by spongy changes in the brain.
Myrtelle Canavan was born in St. John's, Michigan, in 1879. After attending Michigan State College and the University of Michigan, she moved to Philadelphia to attend the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania. After earning her M.D. degree in 1905, she married Dr. James Canavan and became a laboratory assistant at the Danvers State Hospital in Hawthorne, Massachusetts. At Danvers she met Dr. Elmer Southard, a professor of neuropathology at Harvard Medical School, who became a determining influence on Canavan's career. Southard instilled in Canavan an interest in neuropathology, and their professional relationship lasted until Southard's death in 1920.
When Dr. Canavan began her career in 1905, pathology was not yet a field where a specialist routinely tracked the course of a disease by examining tissue samples. Instead, during the early twentieth century, most of the fifty or so pathologists practicing in the United States worked in clinical practice and demonstrated anatomy.
Dr. Canavan was dedicated to finding out how damage in the brain and nervous system affected the mind and the body. Her work began with intensive and meticulous descriptions of brain and spinal cord pathology. She also had a strong interest in bacteriology, and the first of her seventy-nine published articles was concerned with bacillary dysentery. In 1910, Canavan became a resident pathologist at Boston State Hospital, still maintaining her professional partnership with Southard. The first article they published together examined bacterial invasions of blood and cerebrospinal fluid.
In 1914, she was appointed pathologist for the Massachusetts Commission on Mental Disease, and headed the laboratory at the hospital that would later become the Massachusetts Mental Health Center. She was also an instructor of neuropathology at the University of Vermont. In 1924, she became associate professor of neuropathology at Boston University and curator of the Warren Anatomical Museum of the Harvard Medical School, positions she held for the next twenty-one years.
Dr. Canavan studied the pathology of diseases affecting the optic nerve, the spleen, the brain, and the spinal cord, and examined cases of sudden death, multiple sclerosis, and of microscopic hemorrhage. She always sought to discover the pathological basis of different diseases and bodily defects, and defects of the brain were of special interest to her. Her most famous accomplishment came in 1931 when she published a paper she had co-written with a colleague that described the condition now known as "Canavan's Disease." The paper discussed the case of a young child who had died at only sixteen months of age, and whose brain had a soft, spongy section that had turned white. Canavan was the first to diagnose the disease pattern for this degenerative disorder of the central nervous system.
At the Warren Museum, Dr. Canavan acquired more than 1,500 new specimens for research and teaching. Yet her official title remained "assistant curator," because the dean of Harvard Medical School at the time objected to a woman being head of the museum. Despite repeated efforts to acknowledge her work with a grander title and a faculty appointment at Harvard Medical School, neither ever materialized. She was not deterred, though, and continued her teaching, research, curatorial, and publishing efforts until she retired in 1945. At the end of her long career, Dr. Myrtelle Canavan died of Parkinson's disease in 1953.