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VU mourns loss of Pediatrics icon Sarah Sell
By Nancy Humphrey
October 11, 2012
Sarah H. Sell, M.D., professor of Pediatrics, Emerita, one of the key players in the development of the childhood vaccine to protect against Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), the most common cause of bacterial meningitis in children younger than 5, died Saturday, Oct. 6. She was 99.
Her initiatives led to the licensure of several conjugated Hib vaccines in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
These vaccines have been so effective that they have virtually eliminated this devastating disease in young children in the United States.
Dr. Sell, affectionately known as “Sally,” is a 1948 Vanderbilt University School of Medicine (VUSM) graduate who joined the faculty in 1954. In 1972 she organized a gathering of 38 investigators on the cutting edge of Hib research, in order to gain a better understanding of the Hib bacteria. The three-day meeting, held at Vanderbilt, was the stimulus for the development of the vaccines.
In a 1986 study, Hib was found to be the most common cause of meningitis, responsible for 45 percent of meningitis cases. Before the widespread use of Hib vaccine — which children currently receive four times between 2 months and 15 months of age — about 20,000 children under 5 in the U.S. got severe Hib disease each year, and nearly 1,000 died.
After retirement from the full-time Vanderbilt faculty in 1978, Dr. Sell took her work with the Hib vaccine one step further — working as a consultant for the Tennessee Department of Health and Environment, seeing that children actually received the vaccine.
Dr. Sell is also known for her work with the bacteria associated with otitis media (middle ear infections.)
A decade after receiving her undergraduate degree from Berea College in Kentucky and six years after getting her master’s degree in microbiology from Vanderbilt, she enrolled in Vanderbilt Medical School. She was one of two women. The other left at the end of the first year.
In 2005 she was presented with a lifetime achievement award by Vanderbilt’s Department of Pediatrics.
Kathryn Edwards, Sarah H. Sell and Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair and Professor of Pediatrics and director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Research Program, describes Sell as unflappable, respectful and kind to everyone. “She never had a bad word to say about others. She was a wonderful human being.”
“Sally will be greatly missed. Her wise council and her unfailing optimism were inspirational. She spent much of her academic career working on vaccines to prevent devastating diseases in children and she was extremely successful. Many healthy children throughout the world have reaped the benefits of her research.
“When I started out, I said I wanted to be like Dr. Sell, wanted to have many of her best qualities, but I’m not sure I’ve achieved them as she has,” Edwards said. “She has been such a good mentor and role model — the positive, ‘I can do’ attitude; the bringing together of people of various strengths.”
Edwards said that Sell was very nurturing to young faculty. Edwards, her husband and four children would often go to her home in the summer to swim in her pool and eat watermelon on her patio. “Her door was always open. She invited others in to share her warmth and love.”
Sell’s husband, C. Gordon Sell, M.D., a pediatric cardiologist, died in 1999. Formerly chief of pediatric cardiology at Vanderbilt, he helped establish VUMC’s clinical cardiac catheterization laboratory as well as laboratories at Saint Thomas Hospital and the former Hubbard Hospital, now part of Meharry Medical College.
She is survived by sons, Charles and wife Beth, of Nashville; Clive, a 1980 graduate of VUSM, and wife Miriam of Phoenix, and five grandchildren: Charles, William, Benjamin, David and Madeline.
A memorial service and interment of ashes for Dr. Sell will be held at Nashville’s Christ Church Cathedral, 900 Broadway, on Saturday, Oct. 20 (time to be determined). Memorial gifts may be made to Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, the American Heart Association or Berea College, Berea, Ky.