How do the lungs of newborns support their first breaths, and why do some infants develop respiratory distress? This crucial research question emerged in the 1950s and was investigated by numerous physicians and scientists, including the American pediatrician Mary Ellen Avery, who devoted her career to the regulation of infant respiration. In a 1964 lecture, Avery drew a distinction between the intrauterine and extrauterine environments stating that “It is clearly at birth that regular rhythmic respiration begins. Something is turned on, something must be different just after birth from the way it was before, and this something must be essential to the regulation of respiration.”(1)

Although Avery was a physician by training and not a scientist, research played a significant role in her career and led to her prominence as one of the investigational leaders of respiratory distress syndrome, which was known as hyaline membrane disease (HMD) during...

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