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Footprints Through Time: Rowena Spencer (1922- )

Rowena SpencerRowena Spencer, one of the first women to become a pediatric surgeon in the United States and the first woman surgical intern at Johns Hopkins, was born July 3, 1922 in Louisiana. After receiving her bachelor's degree, she entered Johns Hopkins Medical School in December 1943.

Because Johns Hopkins had admitted women to its medical school since 1900, Spencer faced little prejudice initially. However, she was forced to leave the examining room when males were examined for hernias. Later, when she was barred from having male urology patients, she successfully protested. Spencer received her medical degree from Johns Hopkins in 1947.

Spencer applied to Dr. Alfred Blalock for a surgical internship at the Hopkins hospital. When she first mentioned her intention to him, Blalock tried to discourage her. Ultimately, though, he yielded and Spencer became the first woman intern in general surgery there. She learned pediatric surgical technique from Vivien Thomas, Blalock's laboratory technician. Throughout her career, when complimented on her surgical technique, she always pointed out that she learned her skills from Mr. Thomas.

Despite strong recommendations from Blalock, Spencer was denied further training at Hopkins. She took a residency in pediatric surgery at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, under Dr. C. Everett Koop, who later became the U..S. surgeon-general. In her pursuit of surgical training, Spencer repeatedly encountered administrators who refused to accept women surgeons.

Spencer worked at surgical fellowships at Tulane University and several years at Louisiana State University, before performing a year of pediatric surgery in Stockholm, Sweden.

She became the first woman appointed to the full-time surgical staff at Louisiana State University and the first female surgeon in the state of Louisiana. Spencer practiced pediatric surgery at Tulane University Hospital from 1968 until 1977, and then worked in private practice until her retirement in 1984. Throughout her career, she faced resistance from residents who did not want to take instruction from a woman, and colleagues who disparaged her work.

After retiring, Spencer began research on the subject of conjoined twins, and became one of the world's leading authorities on the topic. She published a number of important papers on the embryology of conjoined twins.

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