Contact: Wendel Sloan at 505.562.2253
Reporter: Carolyn Edwards
PORTALES – One of the attending doctors to the "Boy in the Bubble" is an Eastern New Mexico University graduate who has now retired in Portales.
Even as a teenager, Mary Ann South knew she wanted to be a doctor. "At age 12, I read 'Disputed Passage,' a romantic novel by Lloyd C. Douglas," she said. "It was about a woman doctor. I thought that if girls could be doctors, I'd like to be one. Then I read Douglas's next book, 'Magnificent Obsession,' and one of the characters was a woman doctor, so I decided to be one."
Dr. South graduated from Portales High School and attended Baylor University for two years. "Then I returned to Portales and enrolled at ENMU, where I had a full scholarship as a veteran's orphan," Dr. South explained. "The science department was small and very limited, but I could take all my pre-med requirements."
She graduated from Eastern in 1955 with a bachelor's degree in chemistry."
She fondly remembers Bartlett Dewey, Oscar Hofstad, Richard Stroup and Ernest Propes as her chemistry, biology, physics and math professors. "They paid individual attention to the students, and they taught what we needed to know," Dr. South noted. "Another professor whose class I enjoyed was Dr. Hermann Decker. He taught humanities, which was a required course for everyone."
Dr. South went back to Texas and earned her medical degree in 1959 from the Baylor University College of Medicine in Houston. After completing her internship and pediatric residency requirements, Dr. South received a two-year fellowship at Baylor to study pediatric infectious diseases with Dr. Martha Yow and then another two-year fellowship at the University of Minnesota to study pediatric immunology. These two areas of study laid the base for Dr. South's distinguished medical career. Her mentor in immunology was the late Dr. Robert A. Good, who subsequently did the first successful non-twin human bone marrow transplant.
"Immunology was a new field in the 1960s," Dr. South noted. "While I was an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Baylor, we saw a flood of babies with severe combined immune deficiency (SCID) who were suffering and dying from opportunistic infections."
One particular case at Texas Children's Hospital drew national attention to Dr. South and her two partners. In 1971, Dr. South was a member of the medical team that delivered a baby boy named David straight from the womb into a germ-free environment. "At least 100 staff members were involved in his early care," Dr. South noted. "David quickly became known as the 'boy in the bubble,' a designation invented by the press.
David's brother had died at seven months of age from an opportunistic infection, because he had x-linked SCID, diagnosed only after the infection was too far advanced to save him with a bone marrow transplant. So when David was conceived we knew he was at risk and we delivered him by Caesarean section into an isolator. David proved to have SCID and he lived in the isolator until he was 12 yeas old. He died following a failed bone marrow transplant.
One made-for-television movie, "The Boy in the Plastic Bubble," starring John Travolta, was released in 1976. "I was really surprised at how that movie oriented people," Dr. South remarked. "People remember that, although they don't remember the extensive press coverage of the real David in newspapers, magazines and medical journals."
Another movie, "Bubble Boy," a Disney farce, was released in 2001. "That movie also portrayed an isolated boy in his late teens," she said. "In both movies, the boy is shown as longing to escape his isolation. Actually, David refrained from leaving the isolator because he knew what the germs could do to him, although he could have gone out anytime he wanted. He was at home in his own family's house or in the Texas Children's Hospital's General Clinical Research Center (GCRC)."
Dr. South moved from Houston to Philadelphia when David was one and a half years old. She was an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania and director of Pediatric Immunology at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She also served on the National Advisory Committee of the GCRC program at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland.
"I could tell I often was type-cast as the doctor who was involved with the 'Boy in a Bubble' stories." She still speaks to biology classes at ENMU at least once or twice each year, and continues to tell the real story of the Bubble Baby.
Dr. South returned to the High Plains area where she was a professor and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. She also was a research professor and chief of the Division of Immunology in the Department of Pediatrics at Texas Tech. Then she served for three years at NIH and went from there to Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn.
Over the years, Dr. South taught and lectured at a number of other colleges, universities and medical schools including: The University of New Mexico, Gallaudet College for the Deaf, located in Washington, D.C., and Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
While at Meharry Medical College, she was named the W.K. Kellogg Foundation Distinguished Professor of Pediatrics. She was the leader for the Clinical Trials Program of the Minority AIDS Research Consortium involving eight historically black graduate colleges in the health sciences. She also was the principal investigator for the Meharry/Vanderbilt AIDS Clinical Trials Unit in a Minority Institution.
After many years of teaching, research and patient care, Dr. South retired in 1998 and returned to Portales. "It was a haven for me," Dr. South stated. "My family, old friends from high school and college came to see me – what a great welcome home."
Dr. South built a comfortable home on the site where her family home stood. She explained the house was built to resemble a Navajo hogan. Guests can admire pottery, paintings and weavings that she has collected.
Family photographs are arranged above a four-foot-tall, full bookshelf that lines one side of a wide, sunny hallway. Her pride in her heritage shows as she recounts stories about the various family members displayed.
Dr. Mary Ann South: Bubble Boy Doctor
(photo by Carolyn Edwards)