In Memoriam: Ruth Whittemore, Yale Pediatrician Who Participated In First "Blue Baby" Operation

Ruth Whittemore, M.D., a retired Yale pediatric cardiologist, who provided pre- and post-operative care for the baby who received the first “blue baby” operation, died on December 27, 2001 in Connecticut at age 84.

A widely recognized pediatric cardiologist, Whittemore was part of a team of physicians at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1944 that performed the first surgery to increase oxygenated blood to a “blue baby.” Alfred Blalock, M.D., connected an artery that contained oxygenated blood to the pulmonary artery, which lacked sufficient oxygen. During the operation, the baby, blue from birth, turned pink. Whittemore, who was a pediatric resident at the time, was drawn by the experience to the field of pediatric cardiology. She was one of the first fellows trained by Helen Taussig, “the mother of pediatric cardiology,” and the designer of the “blue baby” operation.

After completing her training, Whittemore established the first rheumatic fever and cardiac clinic in New England at the request of Martha Eliot of the Federal Children’s Bureau. The clinic was located at Yale School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics. In addition to providing direct care for over 1,000 patients, Whittemore trained cardiac fellows who later became leading pediatric cardiologists, created seminars for practicing physicians, and established satellite research clinics around Connecticut.

With the decline in the incidence of rheumatic fever, Whittemore devoted more of her time to children with often deadly congenital cardiac abnormalities. She worked closely with William Glenn, M.D., professor of cardiothoracic surgery at Yale, to evaluate children’s heart conditions and provided pediatric care before, during and after surgery. When she retired, Whittemore stated that with the advances in technology and surgery, about 95 percent of children with congenital heart anomalies could be helped.

Whittemore’s major research contribution to the pediatric cardiology field was a detailed, long-term follow up of her former patients with congenital cardiac abnormalities to ascertain the incidence of congenital anomalies in the next generation. She examined 837 children born to 427 of her former patients. Her results showed that 10 percent of the children had some cardiac anomaly, not necessarily the same one as their parent.

Whittemore joined the Yale School of Medicine faculty in 1943 as an instructor of pediatrics. During her 45 years at Yale, Whittemore held several other positions, such as director of pediatric cardiology and director of pediatric cardiac research at the New Haven Rheumatic Fever and Cardiac Program. She earned a bachelor’s degree in 1938 from Mount Holyoke College and was one of six women in a class of 72 who graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1942.

In 1966, Whittemore was appointed clinical professor of pediatrics at Yale, where she also created and directed a lipid clinic to evaluate the children of parents who had died from heart attacks or strokes. She treated the children who had high levels of cholesterol or other lipids to prevent early strokes and heart attacks.

Her many honors and awards include fellowships in the American College of Cardiology and the New York Academy of Science, and membership in Sigma Xi and the American Pediatric Society. In 1983, she received an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Mount Holyoke College, and she was designated Woman of the Year in the American Heart Association (Connecticut) in 1984. She was one of the first pediatricians to be certified by the American Board of Pediatric Cardiologists. She authored or co-authored 53 papers and chapters in textbooks and served on councils and committees of the Connecticut Affiliates of the American Heart Association.

Whittemore is survived by three nieces, one nephew, one great niece, one great nephew and a sister-in-law.

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Karen N. Peart: karen.peart@yale.edu, 203-432-1326