By Andrea Byrne, Digital Technical Specialist, Academy Library
Coming to terms with the COVID-19 pandemic needs the work of many skilled and dedicated physicians, researchers, and health professionals. With this essay, the Library adds to its series celebrating the sustained efforts for the public good of the Academy’s women Fellows, from the first, Mary Putnam Jacobi, to the present.
A pioneer in pathology, New York Academy of Medicine Fellow Martha Wollstein (1868–1939) was the first North American specialist of pediatric perinatal pathology and developmental pathology.1 As one of the earliest women clinician-scientists, she published over 65 papers while acting as a pathologist at Manhattan’s Babies Hospital and a researcher at The Rockefeller Institute.
Martha Wollstein was born November 21, 1868, in New York City to Louis and Minna Cohn Wollstein, German-Jewish immigrants. She graduated from Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary in 1889, where she studied with the first woman NYAM fellow, Mary Putnam Jacobi. Jacobi encouraged her research, and they published Wollstein’s first (and Jacobi’s last) paper together, on the myosarcoma of the uterus in 1902.2 Wollstein had become a NYAM Fellow the previous year, and she also held a teaching appointment at Woman’s College in the 1890s.
Portrait of Martha Wollstein. American Pediatric Society. Semi-centennial volume of the American pediatric society, 1888–1938. Menasha, Wis: Priv. print; 1938.
After graduation, Wollstein went on to be the first resident physician of Babies Hospital in 1890, where she worked until her retirement in 1935.3 Her focus was on infant diseases, including diarrhea, typhoid fever, malaria, and tuberculosis. In 1896, she opened the Heter Pathology Laboratory at Babies. The laboratory became integral to the work of the hospital.4 Babies Hospital’s affiliation with Columbia University connected Wollstein to pediatric and pathology departments at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, where she was an assistant professor of pathology and childhood diseases until her retirement.5
Wollstein was one of five women to be appointed as a researcher at The Rockefeller Institute in 1907. She worked with Simon Flexner, the noted pathologist and researcher, and made important discoveries that led to the treatment of meningitis and other serious illnesses. However, Wollstein never received a formal appointment and dropped her affiliation in 1921.6
The papers Wollstein published throughout her career embodied the pediatric pathology literature of North America.7 Her bibliography comprises over 65 papers, spanning research on descriptive and experimental pathology. Her research interests included bacteriology, diseases of the blood, and mumps, where her development of an experimental animal model became well known. While at Babies she wrote three extensive papers on tuberculosis. Using autopsy data and looking at the distribution of affected organs, she was able to demonstrate a decrease of the disease over time.8
In recognition of her authoritative work and groundbreaking research, Wollstein was nominated as the head of the pediatric section of NYAM in 1928. Two years later, she was the first woman to be elected to membership in the American Pediatric Society. After her death on September 30th, 1939, an obituary remarked that at the time of her retirement, Wollstein “had more extensive experience in the morphology of disease in infants than any other American living.”9
1 James R. Wright Jr., Jeanne Abrams. Martha Wollstein of Babies Hospital in New York City (1868–1939)—The First North American Pediatric Pathologist. Pediatric and Developmental Pathology. 2017; 21 (5): 437–443.
2 Joy Dorothy Harvey, Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie. “Wollstein, Martha (1868–1939).” The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science. Taylor and Francis; 2000. 1393.
3 R.M. Martha Wollstein, M.D. The American Journal of Diseases of Children. 1939; 58 (60): 1301.
4 Wright and Abrams, Martha Wollstein.
5 R.M. Martha Wollstein, M.D.
6 Jeanne Abrams, James R. Wright Jr. (2018). Martha Wollstein: A pioneer American female clinician-scientist. Journal of Medical Biography. 2018.
7 Wright and Abrams, Martha Wollstein.
9 R.M. Martha Wollstein, M.D.