Rowena Spencer (1922-2014)
Fighting against a society that didn't think she belonged in an operating room, Rowena Spencer became a pioneer of pediatric surgery. During her career she separated four sets of conjoined twins, becoming an expert in this rare surgery. In retirement, she wrote a book analyzing the ways twins could become conjoined, using the information to better understand human development.
Rowena Spencer’s father, Lewis Cass “ L.C.” Spencer, was the first orthopedic surgeon in Louisiana. After twenty years in private practice, he became chief of the Division of Crippled Children’s Services in the State Department of Public Health, and spent the 1940s arguing for the rights of children with disabilities in the state of Louisiana, calling for improved education for children with learning difficulties, increased sanitation and better medical care. When L. C. Spencer opened a free pediatric orthopedic clinic in the early 1950s, he hired Trinidad Ramos Edwards to provide care - a great rarity as a female orthopedic surgeon in 1952.
Rowena Spencer went to Johns Hopkins for medical school, like her father. She was one of only four women in her class of 1947. Like Helen Taussig, Spencer described discrimination during her time in medical school: she was not allowed to see men with hernias or examine male urology patients, and she was not allowed to go to the morgue alone.
Nonetheless, she remained at Johns Hopkins as the first female intern in surgery, training under Alfred Blalock (1899-1964) and his more encouraging surgical assistant, a Black man named Vivien Thomas (1910-1985). In later interviews, Spencer attributed her training to the surgical skills of Thomas - including in a PBS documentary about the partnership of the two men, Partners of the Heart.
Spencer wanted to stay at Hopkins for a residency in pediatric surgery. Blalock suggested she go to the Women’s Medical College of Philadelphia, but no residencies were available, so he wrote her a glowing recommendation to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia – mostly so he could get rid of her, she thought. At CHOP, Spencer worked with C. Everett Koop, who would later become surgeon general of the United States. She then returned to Louisiana State University, studying pediatrics and general surgery, and finished her surgical training at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden.
Spencer was an associate professor at LSU in 1966 when she made headlines for her involvement in a surgical separation of a 3-day-old boy from his non-viable conjoined twin. By 1978, she was involved in three more cases of conjoined twins, and was considered a national expert on the phenomenon. It wasn’t until she retired in 1984 that she started compiling hundreds of historical cases of conjoined twins – starting with the Chulkhurst twins, born in 1100 – and considered what these cases could teach us about embryological development. She published her book, Conjoined Twins: Developmental Malformations and Clinical Implications, in 2003.
She moved to Virginia in 2005 and died in 2014 at the age of 91.
Ray Cochran, Bambi L. "Rowena Spencer: A Study of Changing Gender Roles in Twentieth-Century Louisiana Medicine." In Louisiana Women: Their Lives and Times, Volume 1, ed. Janet Allured and Judith F. Gentry. University of Georgia Press, Athens, 2009.
Essay by Alison Christy, MD, PhD