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Catherine A. Neill, M.D., Pediatric Cardiology Pioneer, Dies at age 84

EMAIL: kmartin7@jhmi.edu
PHONE: (410) 502-9429

February 24, 2006

Catherine A. Neill, M.D., professor emerita of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a world-renowned authority in pediatric cardiology, died Thursday, Feb. 23, at the age of 84 in her native England.

Neill studied and trained in the nascent years of pediatric cardiology, and is widely regarded as a pioneer in the genetics and etiology of cardiac malformations, pregnancy outcomes in women with congenital heart disease, complications of post-surgical repair of heart malformations and the use of electrocardiograms to better diagnose and understand congenital heart conditions. In 1960, Neill was the first to recognize and name “scimitar syndrome,” a cardio-pulmonary defect in which the pulmonary veins from an abnormally developed right lung drain into the inferior vena cava; on x-ray, the defects resembles a curved sword, or scimitar.

“Catherine Neill was one of the original leaders in pediatric cardiology at Johns Hopkins,” said George J. Dover, M.D., pediatrician-in-chief and Given Professor of Pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. “She was a dedicated physician who helped change medicine.”

Neill worked closely with Helen Taussig, M.D., the trailblazing cardiologist who in the 1950s led Hopkins’ “blue baby” team, which pioneered an open-heart surgery technique to repair congenital heart defects in infants. The technique laid the groundwork for modern-day open-heart surgery.

Neill was “among the ablest I have ever trained,” Taussig once wrote about her student. “Acting as my first assistant, she takes a tremendous load off my shoulders and frees me to extend my investigative research of children with congenital malformations of the heart.”

Following Taussig’s retirement in 1963, Neill became an interim director of the Division of Pediatric Cardiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Neill was interested in the causes, types and treatment of congenital heart disease, but her curiosity went beyond the purely medical aspects of cardiology, prompting her to pursue research in the psychological and social aspects of chronic illness in adolescence. She published extensively on the subject of holistic treatment of childhood heart disease.

Neill’s colleagues saw her as the consummate clinician, who was also a marvelous teacher with an exemplary bedside manner.

“The world has lost a master of pediatric cardiology and many of us at Hopkins have lost a good friend,” said Richard Ross, M.D., dean emeritus of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “She was first and foremost a skillful and wise physician. She was a gentle British lady with a store of knowledge about the heart and the history of pediatric cardiology.”

“My memories of Catherine Neill are of a soft-spoken, caring and clinically astute pediatric cardiologist, totally devoted to the very best care possible for her patients,” said Vincent L. Gott, M.D., professor of Surgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “It’s been a privilege to have worked and collaborated with her over these past decades.”

“Catherine Neill was a generous friend and mentor,” said Peter C. Rowe, M.D., professor of Pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a family friend since his childhood. “But none of us really knew how generous she was to others because she kept quiet about any altruistic endeavors she undertook inside or outside of the hospital, never wanting to draw attention to herself or to her good works, of which there were many.”

Throughout her five decades at Johns Hopkins, Neill remained a dedicated teacher and adviser to several generations of young pediatricians and pediatric cardiologists. As a female rising through the ranks of academic medicine at a time when they were filled mostly by men, she served as a role model for younger female faculty members.

“Those of us who came into medicine when women were truly a minority saw you as a woman of strength, purpose and sincerity,” wrote Eileen P.G. Vining, M.D., Professor of Neurology and Pediatrics at Johns Hopkins in a recent letter to Neill. “You have been an essential role model in helping shape the variety of pathways in which careers and lives can be formulated.”

“We remember her for the hundreds of cardiologists and pediatricians she trained,” Dover said. “Because of her love for teaching, one of the Children’s Center’s two resident teaching teams is named in her honor. She will be missed.”

Colleagues remember Neill as possessing the brilliant mind of a scholar and the kind heart of caregiver. A grateful father of one patient once wrote to her: “The genius of communication is the ability to be both totally honest and totally kind at the same time, and you most certainly embodied this thought.”

Neill continued to teach and practice medicine well into her 70s. She retired in 1993, but remained actively involved in the hospital. Pursuing her lifelong interest in the history of medicine, Neill volunteered at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions’ Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives until a month prior to her death.

“In her capacity as a volunteer, Dr. Neill made an enormous contribution to the operation of the archival program,” said Chesney Archivist Nancy McCall. “She was a devoted and indefatigable member of our multi-generational team of students, staff, and volunteers who worked with us on a near daily basis for twelve years. With her career’s wealth of knowledge and wisdom, she was a major resource in helping us to document the history of the Medical Institutions. At the time of her death she was finishing a long-term project to process the records of the Institute of the History of Medicine. As colleagues, we greatly admired her intellect and integrity and deeply appreciated the warm friendship she extended to us all.”

Born and raised in England, Neill received her medical degree from London’s Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine, training in general medicine and pediatrics. She was a pediatric cardiology fellow at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children from 1950 to 1951. From 1951 to 1954, Neill trained under Taussig’s supervision as a cardiology fellow at the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children (precursor to today’s Johns Hopkins Children’s Center). Neill returned to London’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children for two years before she came back to Hopkins in 1956 where she remained until her retirement as a professor of pediatrics in 1993.

Throughout her esteemed career, Neill published nearly 100 scientific papers and more than 40 book chapters on childhood heart disease. She co-authored two books, “A History of Pediatric Cardiology” with Edward Clark, M.D., and “The Heart of Child: What Families Need to Know About Heart Disorders in Children” with Edward Clark and Carleen Clark. For many years, Neill was an active member and adviser to the American Heart Association and the Maryland Heart Association.

Neill is survived by brothers Sir Brian Neill of London, England; Lord Patrick Neill of Dorset, England; and Desmond Neill of Toronto, Canada; and their spouses; as well as many nieces and nephews.

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Founded in 1912 as the children's hospital at Johns Hopkins, the Johns Hopkins Children's Center offers one of the most comprehensive pediatric medical programs in the country, with more than 92,000 patient visits and nearly 9,000 admissions each year. The Johns Hopkins Children's Center is Maryland's largest children's hospital and the only state-designated Trauma Service and Burn Unit for pediatric patients. It has recognized Centers of Excellence in dozens of pediatric subspecialties, including allergy, cardiology, cystic fibrosis, gastroenterology, nephrology, neurology, neurosurgery, oncology, pulmonary, and transplant. For more information, visit www.hopkinschildrens.org.