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Several pictures of doctors who are featured on the Local Legends web site

MEET LOCAL LEGEND: Katherine Esterly, M.D.

Picture of Katherine Esterly
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Katherine Esterly, M.D.

“In college, I was exposed to quite a few pre-medical students, and my older brother was in medical school. Also, an aunt died of stomach cancer and that had a profound influence on me. But it wasn't until November of my senior year that I decided to become a doctor.”


Michael N. Castle



Luckily for the countless thousands of infants over three generations she has cared for during her long, illustrious career, Katherine Esterly became a pediatrician-at a time when very few women were becoming physicians at all. Moreover, she was one of the first pediatricians in the country to specialize in neonatology-care of the newborn.

"I was lucky," Esterly recalled recently. "Philadelphia had many medical schools. Penn didn't care for women much, so I went to Temple because someone had given them a grant permitting ten women to join the class-out of 120 students.

"Medicine was changing rapidly in those days. There was a huge explosion of technology, especially the arrival of sulfa, penicillin and the other antibiotics, but it was still the Age of Isolation for infants due to the fear of infection.

"Everyone had to scrub up and wear hats, masks and gowns; mothers weren't even allowed to feed their babies until the day they left the hospital. Now we know it is hand-washing that's most important."

Honored by the State of Delaware as its "Infant Health Hero," Esterly is Chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at Christiana Care Health Services, in Newark, as well as an attending neonatologist at Wilmington's DuPont Hospital for Children, and clinical Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Jefferson Medical College, in Philadelphia. She also is a consultant for St. Francis Hospital, directs both the Child Development Watch Program and the Children's Bureau of Delaware.

She was nominated as a Local Legend of Medicine by Rep. Mike Castle, who declared, "Throughout her career, Dr. Esterly has served as the voice for our most vulnerable populations-newborn babies, sick babies and premature babies-by fighting high infant mortality and prematurity rates. By working to establish the necessary training for new physicians and securing the infrastructure needed to improve the health of these babies, she has given so many Delawareans a fighting chance."

"In the past, the focus was on infection and physical growth," Esterly recalled. "For pediatricians these days, we're moving more and more toward the developmental aspects of a child's growth. We have to attend to the mental health of the child very early because it influences the long-term outcome.

"We pay attention to all the stimuli, the noise and bright lights which impede a baby's growth, for example. And parents can visit round-the-clock, plus we take them on rounds so they know what's going on with their babies. The development of the family is most important-and it has to begin with the parents and the children."

As for being a neonatologist, Esterly says she's enjoyed most the relationships with her patients, especially getting to know the families and having their feedback--"The time with them is brief but very intense."

"There is great satisfaction from medicine," Esterly says. "There are so many options for women these days; they can be surgeons, neonatologists like me, obstetricians or any other specialty they choose."

Deemed the "Mother of Delaware Neonatology by the state's leading newspapers, Esterly is the recipient of numerous awards, including the University of Delaware's "Medal of Distinction", the State of Delaware's "Health Delaware Hero" and the Delaware Public Health Association's "Medal of Honor."



Earns M.D. from Temple University School of Medicine, Philadelphia


Serves as Associate in Pediatrics, Children's Bureau of Delaware


Becomes Medical Director, Children and Families First


Appointed Clinical Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia


Consultant, Department of Pediatrics, St. Francis Hospital, Wilmington


Chair, Department of Pediatrics, Christiana Care Health Services


Awarded Medal of Distinction, University of Delaware


Presented with the Daniel S. Alvarez, MD, Distinguished Service Award, Medical Society of Delaware


Recognized by the State of Delaware with the Healthy Delaware Hero Award




Temple University School of Medicine, Philadelphia