Dr. Rowena Spencer
Submitted by Edgar on Tue, 05/20/2014 - 10:15
Dr. Rowena Spencer, 91, of Alexandria, Virginia, passed from this life on Tuesday, May 13, 2014, in Alexandria, VA. She was born in Shreveport on July 3, 1922 to the union of Dr. Lewis Cass and Alice Beatrice Smead Spencer. Dr. Spencer lived part of her younger life in the Nebo community. A private graveside service was held Saturday, May 17, 2014, at Spencer Cemetery of Nebo, with Kinner and Stevens Funeral Home of Jena
being in charge of the service. Dr. Spencer graduated from LSU and earned a medical degree from John Hopkins University, where she was only one of four women in her class. She underwent further training in surgery and
pediatrics at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, where she served with Dr. C. Everett Koop, who later became Surgeon General under President Ronald Reagan. She went on to serve in New Orleans at Tulane Medical Center and Charity Hospital. Dr. Spencer, a pioneering pediatric surgeon, worked tirelessly to get the best possible treatment for the patients she called her babies. She moved to New Orleans in 1949 and left the city just ahead of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Throughout her surgical career, which lasted until her retirement in 1984, Dr. Spencer set a series of precedents. She was the first woman surgeon in Louisiana, the first pediatric surgeon of either sex in the state, and the first female surgical intern at John Hopkins Medical Institution in Baltimore. She taught at LSU School of Medicine, where she was the first woman in the department of surgery to hold a full-time faculty appointment. Dr. Spencer developed an interest in conjoined twins, who are joined early in pregnancy before structures such as the neural tube have developed to the extent where skin closes over them. She separated four sets of conjoined twins and wrote a medical textbook on the subject after retiring in 1984 from her surgical practice. Her guiding philosophy was simple. “Babies are people. They need more than bottles and a diaper,” Dr. Spencer said in an interview. She was devoted to them. When her young patients were going to get X-rays, Dr. Spencer brought them into the room,
and carried them into the operating room, and after surgery, into the recovery room as she talked or sang to them. She once went eight years without taking a vacation, and often slept at the hospital so she could monitor her
young patients after surgery. “I have loved babies since the day I was born,” she once said. This was evident during her childhood, where her father, Dr. Cass Spencer, served as an orthopedic surgeon, and later a public health official. When she was growing up near the banks of Little River in LaSalle Parish, she was a babysitter of anyone she could lay hands on. When there was a major flood when she was in high school, she took care of a baby that was malnourished in a shelter and took it home. The two were reunited 60 years later. In New Orleans, Dr. Spencer trained at Tulane University and Charity Hospital. She raised eyebrows in the 1950s when segregation was still the rule, because she insisted that all her patients at Charity be treated in the same ward, regardless of their race. Once Dr. Spencer decided on a course of treatment, she never second-guessed herself. There was no hesitation at all. Because of her passion for her calling and her determination to do the right thing for her little patients, she frequently ran afoul of the predominantly male medical establishment,
because she never hesitated to speak out. Although Dr. Spencer was devoted to children, she never had any of her own. She was profiled in “Louisiana Women: Their Lives and Times” which was published in 2009.
She is survived by two sisters, Sarah Spencer of Monroe and Linda Altenburg of New Orleans, and seven nieces and nephews.
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