Dorothy Hansine Andersen (1901-1963)
She coined the term “cystic fibrosis” to describe the unusual pancreatic pathology of what we now think of as a pulmonary disease. Dorothy Andersen defied many expectations of women in her time by refusing to wear makeup, smoking (even while working), spending her free time with athletic activities and remaining unmarried throughout her life.
Dorothy Andersen was born in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1901. Most biographies of Andersen state that she was an only child, but her mother’s obituary says her parents had four children, and she was the only survivor. Her father died shortly before her thirteenth birthday, and her mother, who had been ill for some time, died six years later, when she was only 19, a sophomore at Mount Holyoke College.
This exposure to illness likely inspired her interest in medicine. After her undergraduate studies in zoology and chemistry, Andersen went to Johns Hopkins for medical school (where she would be followed by Helen Taussig and Rowena Spencer), graduating in 1926. At Johns Hopkins, she worked with pathologist Florence Rena Sabin (1871-1953), who had herself graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1900. Sabin had been the first woman hired on faculty in 1902 and the first female full professor in 1917 (although, despite protests, Sabin was passed over for the role of chair of the Department of Anatomy).
Andersen then went to the University of Rochester, where she was Assistant in Anatomy, and did an intern year at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New York. She joined the faculty of Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1929, where she focused on endocrinology and the female reproductive system.
In 1935, Andersen joined the pathology staff at Babies Hospital (founded by Sarah McNutt). In 1938 she collected a number of cases of children who died with what was called celiac disease – a broad term at the time used for an inability to process a typical diet. Andersen found that certain children had fibrotic cysts in the pancreas at autopsy. Andersen began studying this disease she named “cystic fibrosis,” a “not uncommon disease which is usually fatal in infancy or early childhood,” she wrote in 1949. With closer study, it was clear that these children not only had trouble absorbing fats and gaining weight, they also had a chronic bronchitis, with thick bronchial secretions. Andersen wondered if vitamin deficiencies from pancreatic insufficiency could be leading to frequent lung infections; or if there was a problem with the mucus in both the lungs and the pancreas.
Andersen thought the vitamin deficiency was the problem, but we now know that cystic fibrosis is caused by genetic variations in a protein (CFTR) that is involved in the movement of chloride ions outside a cell. This maintains the balance of water and salt in the mucus of the lungs, the pancreas, and the reproductive tracts.
Like Helen Taussig, Andersen went on to study congenital malformations of the heart – from a pathological perspective. She took over as Chief of Pathology at Babies’ Hospital in 1952, and was appointed full professor at Columbia in 1958.
She was a heavy smoker, and died of lung cancer at the age of 62.
Baird, John Scott. Dorothy Hansine Anderson: The Life and Times of the Woman . Springer International Publishing, 2021.
Essay by Nora Christy and Alison Christy, MD, PhD