"We kept our promises": an oral history of Harry Shwachman, M.D

Am J Med Genet A. 2008 Feb 1;146A(3):284-93. doi: 10.1002/ajmg.a.32113.


Harry Shwachman, M.D., was Chief of the Division of Clinical Nutrition at Children's Hospital, Boston, which eventually became the largest Cystic Fibrosis (CF) center in the world. For over four decades he pioneered understanding of the disease and developed a program of diagnosis and treatment that dramatically extended the lives of children affected with CF. During his own childhood, he developed bilateral pneumonia and nearly died. He received a BS from M.I.T in 1932, and an MD from Johns Hopkins in 1936. He completed his internship and residency at Johns Hopkins and Children's Hospital, Boston (1937-1941). In 1947 he returned from Army service to Boston where he resumed his medical practice and research. Dr. Shwachman discovered a less invasive screening procedure for CF than the intubation technique used previously. In the late 1940s he and his colleagues identified pulmonary involvement to be the primary manifestation of CF. He was instrumental in establishing the autosomal recessive genetic pattern of CF [Allen et al., 1956]. He introduced new treatment methods that changed the management of CF, including the use of antibiotics in 1948, a new pancreatic enzyme replacement, and chest physical therapy. In 1954 Shwachman developed the first reproducible sweat test at Children's Hospital, Boston, and in 1955 he helped establish the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. He authored over 250 publications, trained generations of researchers, and was a dedicated clinician, legendary for his devotion to his patients and their families. In addition, he was an accomplished violinist and founding member of the Newton Symphony Orchestra. He and Irene, his wife of 42 years, had three children: Elizabeth, Joan, and Alan, and at the time of interview, three grandchildren. This autobiographical vignette is based on excerpts from an interview I conducted of Dr. Shwachman and his wife in their home in Boston in 1984, 2 years prior to his death.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article
  • Portrait

MeSH terms

  • Cystic Fibrosis / history*
  • Genetics, Medical / history*
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Massachusetts

Personal name as subject

  • Howard Shwachman