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Dr. Maria Delivoria-Papadopoulos, Saved Thousands of Infants, 90

PHILADELPHIA – Dr. Maria Delivoria-Papadopoulos, 90, of Lansdowne, PA, an internationally renowned scientist in the field of neonatal medicine who helped save thousands of infants through her groundbreaking research, died on September 11, 2020 of endometrial cancer at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP), the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

A professor emeritus of pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine, former director of newborn services at HUP, and a pioneer in neonatal and pediatric medicine, she joined the faculty at Penn in 1967 as an instructor in pediatrics, according to the Penn Alumni magazine, the Pennsylvania Gazette. She became an assistant professor in physiology and pediatrics a few years later, moving up to associate professor and then, in 1976, full professor of pediatrics, physiology, and obstetrics-gynecology. She also served as the director of newborn services and the intensive care nursery at HUP from 1974 to 1996. She was associate dean for International Medical Programs, and she was also an associate physician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She retired in 1996.

Dr. Delivoria-Papadopoulos is perhaps best known for performing the world’s first successful ventilation treatment for premature infants in North America. She received continuous funding from the National Institutes of Health for decades for her research, as well as numerous awards, including the American Academy of Pediatrics Lifetime Achievement Award, Penn’s Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching, and the Leonard Berwick Memorial Teaching Award from the Perelman School of Medicine.

During a 50-year career, Dr. Delivoria-Papadopoulos was a professor of pediatrics, physiology, and obstetrics/gynecology at Drexel University College of Medicine, and director of neonatal intensive care at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children.

She was regarded as the “mother of neonatology” and “a legend in the field," Greece’s Neonatal Society said in an online tribute, the Inquirer reported.

“She remains alive in the hearts and memories of the hundreds of doctors she trained and inspired to have a love for sick children, of the hundreds of Greek doctors she opened the way for, and of the thousands of Greek patients who found treatment at specialized centers with her help,” the Society said on Sept. 14.

Born in Athens, she was the daughter of Constantine and Kalliopi Delivoria and earned a medical degree from Athens University. Dr. Delivoria-Papadopoulos came to the United States in 1957 to pursue postdoctoral study in physiology at the University of Pennsylvania. She joined the faculty and created the neonatal unit at Penn, which she ran before leaving as professor emeritus in 2000.

She was on the Drexel faculty from 2000 to 2006, where she held the Ralph Brenner Endowed Chair in Pediatrics at St. Christopher’s Hospital.

Dr. Delivoria-Papadopoulos “was honored globally for her achievements and continued research in neonatal medicine throughout her life,” the Inquirer reported, noting that “her most important contribution was taking the iron lung used to treat polio victims in the 1950s and adapting it to support the breathing of premature babies. Another was the use of magnetic resonance imaging to assess the infants' brains.”

She was the first doctor to place an infant on a respirator to help with respiratory distress syndrome, her family said in a statement, adding that she was also the first woman and doctor to demonstrate the effective use of mechanical ventilation to treat lung disease in premature infants, the Inquirer reported.

“Her nearly 60-year medical career was dedicated to at-risk newborns, and she touched the lives of countless children,” St. Christopher’s Hospital said in an online post, the Inquirer reported.

Among the cases on which she consulted was in 1963 for Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, the infant son of President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, the Inquirer reported, noting that Dr. Delivoria-Papadopoulos was working at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto at the time and “was called when the baby developed breathing problems.”

She did not treat the child, “because it was considered unseemly for a Canadian physician to treat the child of a U.S president,” the Inquirer reported, adding that a Boston specialist placed the infant “in a hyperbaric chamber filled with 100% oxygen, similar to the ones used by divers” and “despite frantic efforts by doctors, the child lived for only 39 hours, dying at 4:04 AM Aug. 9.”

Dr. Delivoria-Papadopoulos served as an adviser to the National Institutes of Health and was the author of 400 scientific publications and “had an extensive network of scientific protégés as well as thousands of surviving patients, including many for whom she was the only hope,” the Inquirer reported.

“They kept in touch with her always,” said her son, James C. Patterson, the Inquirer reported.

Joseph McGowan, a family friend for 40 years, told the Inquirer that “she spent a month in Greece every summer, providing free medical care to Greek children.”

Dr. Delivoria-Papadopoulos “worked from a tent and gave each child a toy so they wouldn’t fear doctors,” the Inquirer reported.

After her mother passed away in 1985, Dr. Delivoria-Papadopoulos “wore black, sometimes punctuated with a signature white blouse, for the rest of her life,” the Inquirer reported.

She was predeceased by her husband, Christos Papadopoulos, who died in 2002. Besides her son James, she is survived by another son, Constantine C. Patterson, and a grandson.

Services were private. Memorial donations may be made to any veterans’ organization.

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