Dr Lilly M. S. Dubowitz, MD, MRCP, FRCP (1930-2016)
Lilly Dubowitz (née Sebok) was born in 1930 in Budapest, Hungary. She and her mother survived the 2nd World War after which she graduated from school in Budapest in 1948 and embarked on studying engineering at the university. But not long after this she and her mother had the opportunity to emigrate to Melbourne, Australia to join her aunt and they decided to go. There she got work both waitressing and in a biochemistry laboratory and soon realised that she wanted to study medicine. Having learned English she talked her way into medical school keeping her laboratory job until she received a scholarship. By 1956 she had qualified and after 2 years was sent to London to train in endocrinology at the Hammersmith Hospital. Towards the end of this time she met and married Victor Dubowitz, who became an eminent Professor in Paediatric Neuromuscular medicine.
They soon moved to Sheffield where she worked in Paediatrics and developed a strong interest in newborn and infant development. Working with neonates was very suitable because, having her own small children at home, she could often only work nights shifts, and the newborns in the hospital did not mind if it was day or night when she was performing her research. During this period she developed “The Assessment of Gestation in Newborn Infants” published in 1970, that was used worldwide – it became so popular in the USA that neonatologists often used the term “to Dubowitz the baby” when performing the assessment.
Later, together with her husband, she developed her neurological assessment of the full term and preterm newborn, providing charts and instructions on how to perform the examination, paying special attention to infants born prematurely, who, until then were thought to be impossible to assess because of the lack of appropriate tools. She later developed a similar examination for young infants up to the age of 2 years.
Both assessments have been standardised and widely used in research but they also became very popular because they reflected her determination to develop methods that could be easily performed even by relatively inexperienced staff in everyday clinical practice and without costly equipment. One of Lilly’s missions was to make the examination available to everyone in any clinical situation – to this end she travelled to many countries, Thailand and the Burmese border studying visual attention particularly in these infants there, Papua New Guinea and Malawi, where the assessments were used to distinguish the nutritionally small-for-dates infant from the premature infant and to monitor the effect of antimalarial drugs.
In the late 70s Lilly moved to London where at the Hammersmith Hospital she pioneered the use of cranial ultrasound imaging in newborn infants, developed the use of electroencephalography in newborns and, in the mid 80s, was involved in introducing Magnetic Resonance Imaging, a technique not then used in young children, to assess the newborn and infant brain, and its growth and development and response to injury.
Her focus and determination in understanding the ‘newborn brain’ by combining bedside clinical assessment with new and sophisticated techniques as part of an ‘’integrated approach’’ has changed the field of neonatal neurology and laid the foundations for much research that developed in more recent years. She always maintained her strong interest in the patient and continued to do her own clinics providing much appreciated personal support for her patients and their families.
After retiring in 1995 she maintained her strong interest in neonatal neurology and continued to support fellows who had worked with her over the years, many of whom are now leading experts in the field of neonatal neurology in several countries. She received many prizes and awards but was never one for ceremony and prestige.
She used her time to set about applying her strict research methods and dogged persistence in piecing together clues and details of her uncle, Stefan Sebok, an architect who worked with Walter Gropius in the Bauhaus in the late 1920s. The family had no information about what had happened to him and amongst many other details she found that he had been killed in Moscow by the KGB during the Second World War and that his wife and child had also died. This work is beautifully described in a book describing this work ‘In search of a Forgotten Architect’ published in 2012 by Architectural Association Publications – her efforts have been greatly appreciated by experts in the field.
Lilly celebrating her 80th birthday in Genoa, Italy. She is greatly missed
and greatly remembered by all her many friends, colleagues and family.