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MEET LOCAL LEGEND: Mildred Stahlman, M.D.

Picture of Mildred Stahlman
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Mildred Stahlman, M.D.

“When she was about 11, Stahlman was given a microscope. "I looked at flies' wings and bugs," she recalls. "A cousin of mine had a chemistry set, which I envied greatly." About this time, she decided she would be a doctor when she grew up.”


Jim Cooper



Mildred T. Stahlman, M.D., who revolutionized the care of high-risk newborns by creating the world's first modern neonatal intensive care unit, at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, was nominated to be a Local Legend of Medicine by Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN-5).

Bestowing Vanderbilt's Distinguished Alumna Award on Stahlman in 2004, Chancellor Gordon Gee noted, "Dr. Stahlman's contributions to the field of medicine and to the cause of higher education are nearly immeasurable."

"Many people did much more than I did," Stahlman insisted in a later interview. "My idea of science is that everything is built on the backs of somebody else."

Be that as it may, Hakan W. Sundell, M.D., professor of Pediatrics and a longtime colleague of hers credited Stahlman with "an ability to see the big picture, what needs to be done to help babies. There are only a few people who have had that ability to have so much wisdom and insight, and to do something about it to accomplish change."

Not content to sit on her laurels or to retire, Stahlman continues at Vanderbilt as Professor of Pediatrics and Pathology and also collaborates with researchers at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center to identify the genetic underpinnings of respiratory distress syndrome, a leading killer of premature infants.

A 1943 graduate of the Vanderbilt College of Arts and Science, Stahlman earned her medical degree from Vanderbilt in 1946, then served as an intern at Lakeside Hospital in Cleveland, as a pediatric intern at Children's Hospital in Boston, as assistant resident on the pediatric service at Vanderbilt, as an exchange fellow at the Royal Caroline Institute in Stockholm, and as a cardiac resident at La Rabida Sanitarium in Chicago. She became an instructor in Pediatrics at Vanderbilt in 1951.

Her initial research was in pediatric cardiology, but in the late 1950s and early 1960s, she moved in a direction that changed her life and the lives of thousands of premature babies and their parents. When a baby girl with severe hyaline membrane disease was born in October of 1961, Stahlman's research was confronted with a life or death situation. The girl's parents gave permission for a bold experiment at the time - helping their daughter breathe through use of a respirator that had been scaled down for premature baby size. The ability to monitor the respirator's effect on blood oxygen with umbilical catheters made respirator therapy possible.

This interest in the respiratory problems of premature newborns along with a National Institutes of Health grant led Stahlman to put into place the first modern neonatal intensive care unit in the world.She was also involved in initiating the regionalization program of high-risk newborn care in Tennessee in 1973. She started Vanderbilt's Neonatology Fellowship Training Program and has helped train more than 80 post-doctoral fellows from about 20 countries in research and high-risk newborn care.

Stahlman is a member of the Institute of Medicine and a former president of the American Pediatric Society and the Southern Society for Pediatric Research. Her peers have honored her with the Virginia Apgar Award from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the John Howland Medal, the highest award of the American Pediatric Society.

(Biography adapted from "Stahlman Named Distinguished Alumna" by Ann Marie Deer Owens, The Reporter, Vanderbilt Medical Center, October 15, 2004 and "Intensive Caring," by Bill Snyder, The Reporter, Vanderbilt Medical Center, February 4, 2005. Lead quote excerpted from "Intensive Caring," by Bill Snyder, The Reporter, Vanderbilt Medical Center, February 4, 2005.)



Earns M.D. from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine


Becomes Instructor in Pediatrics at Vanderbilt


Founds country's first modern neonatology intensive care unit; pioneers use of respiratory therapy on infants with damaged lungs


Becomes Professor of Pediatrics, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine


Elected President, American Pediatric Society


John Lind Lecturer, Stockholm, Sweden


Named Vanderbilt "Distinguished Alumna"




Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Nashville



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