It was a tragic and inexplicable event repeated thousands of times in the 1950s and '60s: a premature infant unable to breathe on its own.

One woman, Mary Ellen Avery, M.D., FAAP, led fellow researchers to the cause of the lethal problem.

Her discovery — that hyaline membrane disease (respiratory distress syndrome) in premature infants was associated with abnormal surface tension in the lung — knocked lung disease from the No. 1 spot as a leading cause of death among infants.

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