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Dr. Rowena Spencer Turns 91: A Baby Doctor with Strong Opinions

Dr. Rowena Spencer describes herself as a “baby doctor with strong opinions.” She will turn 91 on July 3, 2013.

Although she retired from pediatric surgery in 1984, she continues to reflect on the many babies she has treated. “I think of them as one baby, multiplied, and I loved everyone of them,” she says.

She practiced pediatric surgery in New Orleans for thirty years, also conducting research and serving on the medical school faculties of Louisiana State University and Tulane University. Following her retirement, she devoted a decade to writing a comprehensive medical text on conjoined twins.

When she began her career in 1953, she was one of the first women in the country to specialize in pediatric surgery, doing so at a time when the field itself was developing and evolving as a surgical specialty. In 1975, she was among the first group of surgeons to qualify for the Certificate of Special Competence in Pediatric Surgery from the American Board of Surgery.

Dr. Spencer is from Central Louisiana and was the third of four daughters of Lewis Cass Spencer, an orthopedic surgeon. In 1947, she graduated from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where she was one of four women in her class, subsequently becoming the school’s first woman intern in surgery. She continued her surgical training in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Stockholm.

Last year, as she approached 90, Dr. Spencer reflected here on her life and career. [AMSA On Call, “A Conversation with Dr. Rowena Spencer at 90,” June 29, 2012.] Her remarks prompted responses from a wide range of readers, including friends, colleagues, patients and former students.

Dr. Spencer shares additional observations with Charles A. Fishkin, a former patient who is now a finance professor in New York.

When you began your career, what was the state of pediatric surgery?

Babies needed special care, and a lot of it. They needed good care specifically directed to them.

What qualities are important for a pediatric surgeon?

You have to have compassion. You have to have strong sympathy for the children you are working on. You have to make the experience positive for the child. It helps tremendously.

Describe your approach to pediatric surgery:

Plan the procedure. Do what you plan, and get it done promptly.

What advice do you have for residents in pediatric surgery?

You can’t just dump a baby on the exam table.

You once worked eight years without a day off. What motivated you to sustain such an effort?

You can’t just go fishing. If it’s my baby and I am responsible for it, I am going to be there. You just can’t turn around and walk off.

On her experience as a medical student at Johns Hopkins:

It was built for me. The minute I laid eyes on it, I knew it was my place. I loved every minute of it. It was an honor and a privilege.

On her research and writing about conjoined twins:

It was just so fascinating. It just ate me up. I just lived with twins. It was in my thoughts twenty-four hours a day.

On herself:

It’s been a very good life.


Copyright 2013. Charles A. Fishkin and Rowena Spencer. All Rights Reserved.

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