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Life-saving neonatal caregiver Mildred T. Stahlman, M.D ’40 celebrates her 100th birthday

By MC Claverie '20

Harpeth Hall Communications Intern

In a small, humble log cabin on the edge of Williamson County near Brentwood, Mildred T. Stahlman, M.D ’40, the mother of modern neonatology, is celebrating her 100th birthday.

A groundbreaking professional in the medical field, Dr. Stahlman transformed the field of neonatology at a time when women — although newly establishing themselves in the workforce with an emboldened sense of empowerment after World War II — still faced rigid gender roles. Throughout her accomplished career, she made history as she paved the way to save the lives of high-risk newborns and earned international recognition for her neonatal work at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. As she reaches a milestone birthday, Dr. Stahlman continues to be revered for the legacy she created.

“She said her work was her love, and it was, and she changed the world,” said Terry Johnson, a Harpeth Hall parent and close friend of hers.

A graduate of Ward-Belmont Preparatory School and Ward-Belmont College for Women, Dr. Stahlman earned both her undergraduate and medical degrees in a total of six years, completing her undergraduate education at the Vanderbilt College of Arts and Sciences in 1943 and earning her medical degree from Vanderbilt Medical School in 1946 where she was one of four women in her class of 50

Dr. Stahlman went on to serve as an intern at Lakeside Hospital in Cleveland, as a pediatric intern at Children's Hospital in Boston, as an 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 before returning to Vanderbilt in 1951 to serve as an instructor in pediatrics.

Initially, her area of research was in pediatric cardiology, but everything changed for both Dr. Stahlman and thousands of premature babies and their parents in October of 1961, when a baby girl with severe hyaline membrane disease was born.

A new idea for saving infants

Dr. Stahlman received permission from the baby girl's parents to perform a bold experiment at the time — she helped the baby breathe through the use of a respirator that had been scaled down for premature baby size. The baby not only survived and is now a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) nurse at Vanderbilt Medical Center, but the ability to monitor the respirator's effect on blood oxygen with umbilical catheters made respirator therapy possible.

The combination of continued interest in the respiratory problems of premature newborns and a grant from National Institutes of Health allowed Stahlman to establish the world’s first modern neonatal intensive care unit at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

“Dr. Stahlman made foundational contributions to a whole series of advancements, including developing the concept of a neonatal intensive care unit which did not exist before,” said John Morris M.D., associate chief of staff of Vanderbilt Health System and a member of the Harpeth Hall Board of Trustees. “She has an incredible legacy throughout pediatrics globally. If you really put her work into perspective, she has created systems to be able to provide assistance to and vast improvements in the quality of care for hundreds of thousands of children.”

In 1973, Dr. Stahlman was involved in initiating the regionalization program of high-risk newborn care in Tennessee and she eventually started Vanderbilt's Neonatology Fellowship Training Program, which has helped train more than 80 post-doctoral fellows from about 20 countries in research and high-risk newborn care.

She also promoted regionalized neonatal critical care and helped establish the first Angel Transport Mobile Intensive Care Unit. During her time as an instructor, professor, and practitioner of pediatrics and neonatology, she wrote more than 150 peer-reviewed publications and assisted in the training of more than 80 post-doctoral fellows from approximately 20 countries.

“She was a generous teacher and mentor and all of us who learned from her during our medical education and/or residency understood that we were learning from one of the true “greats” in medicine,” said Ann Price M.D., FACP, a former student of Dr. Stahlman and who currently works as an associate professor of medicine and an associate professor of medical education and administration at Vanderbilt University Medical School.

In 1995, Dr. Stahlman was honored as Harpeth Hall’s distinguished alumna, and, in 1996, she received the American Pediatric Society’s highest honor, the John Howland Award. She was also inducted into The Tennessee Health Care Hall of Fame's inaugural class in 2015.

“I can’t emphasize enough what a big deal her work was and is today,” said Dr. Morris, who noted that when Dr. Stahlman first began her work, Vanderbilt had five beds for premature infants. Today, the Nashville-based hospital has 190 preemie beds, he said. “She came up at a time when virtually no one was doing what she spent her life’s work doing. Men didn’t do it. Women didn’t do it. … She’s an inspiration to all of us.”

Helping with a humble heart

While Dr. Stahlman’s impact on the medical field is immense, Mr. Johnson said that her humility is what stands out.

“There is no arrogance about her,” Mr. Johnson said. “She was on the Nobel Prize nomination committee, no one would ever know that. She is considered the founder of neonatology, she would never tell anybody that.”

Mr. Johnson first met Dr. Stahlman, or “Millie” as he affectionately referred to her, in August of 1979. At the time, he had applied for a job in the neonatology department in Vanderbilt pediatrics, which Dr. Stahlman was the head of, he said.

Although Dr. Stahlman was not the first female doctor, she began practicing medicine at a time when many women were not. Mr. Johnson said that Dr. Stahlman, who is petite, had a personality and reputation for being tough, and that after initially applying for the job in neonatology, he was warned by an HR person about Dr. Stahlman’s reputation. Upon meeting and getting to know her, he said that could not be further from the truth.

“She said she had to be mean ‘Because I'm a little woman and men wouldn't listen to me,’” Mr. Johnson said. “She is the most kind and gentle person on the planet, but if you're petite and surrounded by a bunch of male physicians, it's hard to get their attention.”

Dr. Stahlman and Mr. Johnson formed a close mentorship relationship. Mr. Johnson, who currently works as a private practice therapist, said that Dr. Stahlman encouraged him to apply for graduate school to become a licensed clinical social worker and helped pay for his tuition. He also said that she stood in as his mother at his wedding. In 2010, when his daughter, Bryn — now a rising Harpeth Hall sixth grade student — was born, Dr. Stahlman became her godmother. 

Though most Nashvillians are unaware that the woman responsible for saving thousands of the littlest lives resides among us, Dr. Stahlman continues to enjoy her unassuming log cabin in the Williamson County countryside.

Mr. Johnson said that while Dr. Stahlman never got married or had children, her work is her true love, and it has saved so many lives and made a transformative impact on medicine.

“By far she is the smartest person I'll ever be exposed to and she is by far the most generous person I'll ever know,” Mr. Johnson said. “She changed the world, she changed me, and now she’s a role model for my daughter.”