Beryl Benacerraf, 73, Dies; Pioneered the Use of Prenatal Ultrasound
She was a trailblazer for medical women and for women as a whole
Dr. Beryl Benacerraf took her inspiration from her own pregnancy, when she came home from work in the early stages of labor to discover the baby she had been carrying was not viable. While many women today are familiar with the words “fetal heartbeat,” or that a fetus is not going to survive outside the womb, she was the first doctor ever to use the term “prenatal ultrasound” to describe ultrasound imaging in utero.
On a March night in 1953, just after her 33rd birthday, Benacerraf, then a 31-year old medical resident at New York University’s Mount Sinai Hospital, sat in her hospital room on the eighth floor of the Manhattan hospital and, through the lens of a handheld ultrasound machine she had brought with her, looked into the womb of her unborn fetus. She saw a smooth, round object, about the size of a pea, that had clearly been formed and was now about to be implanted in her uterus.
“I had to be sure, otherwise, I would have had to continue to labor for the rest of my life,” she told ABC News in a story written by the journalist Barbara Walters. “I couldn’t see my son’s head. There was no head.”
Benacerraf’s work in the developing world, and her career as a humanitarian and peacekeeper, had put her in the unusual position of being the first doctor in the world to see and to describe what was about to happen to a baby once it had been conceived a few days earlier.
She didn’t know it at the time, but she was literally at the forefront of a revolution in the way medicine treats pregnancy today — one that, in many ways, would take decades to catch on.
Benacerraf was, as the New York Times would later remark, “the first person to see the fetus developing in utero through an ultrasound machine.”
For her first six months of pregnancy, she never touched alcohol, didn’t smoke, and never tried to conceive a child naturally.