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A Conversation with Dr. Rowena Spencer at 90

Dr. Rowena Spencer will celebrate her 90th birthday on July 3, 2012. She was one of the first women in the country to specialize in pediatric surgery, which she practiced in New Orleans from 1953 to 1984. She then devoted a decade to research on conjoined twins, producing a substantial medical text.

In 1947, she received an M.D. from Johns Hopkins, where she was also the first woman surgical intern. She pursued additional training in surgery and pediatrics at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, Charity Hospital in New Orleans, Tulane and the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.


Charles A. Fishkin, a former patient of Dr. Spencer, talks with her about her life and career.

What has been the most satisfying part of your work?
Holding the babies. I love babies more than a mule can kick.

What would you like to be remembered for?
That I have been able to convince people that pediatric surgery is a necessary and viable specialty.

On the field of pediatric surgery:
I enjoyed every minute of surgery. I love the field. I loved taking care of babies.

On communicating with babies:
They know a great deal more than you think they do. They know you are talking to them. They may not know whether its whales or snails, but they know you are communicating with them.

Advice for young people:
Don’t be discouraged. Don’t quit. Keep going.

On her father, Dr. Lewis Cass Spencer:
He and I were soul mates. We both loved the country. We both ended up loving surgery. We had a great deal in common. We both loved each other very dearly. I just adored him.

On herself:
I happened to be hard-headed and stubborn, and I don’t let anything stand in my way if it’s humanly possible. I have strong opinions about things.

On aging:
I am getting old, but I am not there yet. I don’t fret about it. I just let it do what it’s going to do.

On her life:
It has been interesting without question. It’s been a pretty good handful. I’m still working on it.

Copyright 2012. Charles A. Fishkin and Rowena Spencer. All Rights Reserved. 

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Comments  3

  • Susan Dorsey 03 Jul

    I worked at the Tulane University School of Medicine in the Rudolph Matas Library.  Dr. Spencer was working on the research for her book on conjoined twins.  I worked in the Interlibrary Loan Department and we helped her find some very old and obscure articles on the topic.  She always came into our office full of life and we all loved her.

    She is an amazing pioneer in medicine.  I am so happy to hear she is celebrating her 90th birthday.

    Please extend my good wishes to her.

    Susan Dorsey
  • Dr Alvin M. Cotlar 31 Jul

    I was trained to do pediatric surgery by Dr. Rowena Spencer and have always considered her one of the most important people in my life. I never specialized in pediatric surgery, but because of Dr. Spencer's tutoring,  I enjoyed, for many, many years, a successful general surgeon's practice, performing baby hernias, pylorics, undescended testicles, appendectomies, and those types of "bread and butter" cases. I am 80 on my next birthday, and did my last pediatric case 5 years ago when I began serving the VA population which, regretfully  does not include pediatrics. Rowena was the best in so many ways clinically and academically. I liked it a lot better when I was 30 and she was 40, and when I was 50 and she was 60....Why the heck did she leave New Orleans?
  • Will M 06 Sep

    Dr. Spencer holds a special place in my heart and life.  I was born 2 month premature down in south Louisiana in 1956.  With life threatening complications I was moved to Charity Hospital in New Orleans.  Others had worked with me but with no success. The story goes that Dr. Spencer was called as I was left with no hope.  She told the caller that she was coming in to see me but not to see me die.  Because of her expertise and commitment I am alive today, happily married, two children.  I believe the last time I saw her was when I was 12 years old. My dad and I brought her roses.  I wish that I could get in touch with her now.  Funny side note.  My wife and I noticed that our anniversary is the same as her birthday!  Go figure!
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