Herta Spencer-Laszlo, M.D., pioneer in human metabolism and nutrition, was the definition of upbeat. To her, the glass of life was always at least half full. Over the ninety-six years of her life she faced enormous challenges. Born and raised in Austria, she escaped the Holocaust, moved to a new country twice, and had to attend Medical School a second time since America would not recognize her schooling from Vienna. When faced with the premature death of the love of her life and husband of five years—my grandfather—she still played an active role in the lives of her grown step-son, then later his growing family.
Because Herta's step-son (my father) was an only child in a family ravaged by the Holocaust and my mother is a Jew-by-choice, Herta Spencer-Laszlo became a vital link to the Jewish world and other Jewish family members for our family. Herta's sister, Marta, and her sister's children, Eric and Steve, attended many Jewish family events with us—providing our clan, who lived in small town Durham, North Carolina, with a glimpse into a larger Jewish world which included accented immigrants who lived in big cities far away.
Born Herta Sprinzeles in Mattersdorf, a small town in Austria-Hungary, she was the daughter of Heinrich Sprinzeles and Regina Hirsch, and was raised in Vienna. As a Jew, her medical studies at the University of Vienna were interrupted during her final semester before graduation following the Anschluss of Austria by Germany in 1938. She, along with her sister Marta, also a medical student, and her brother Emil, fled to London. Emil served in U.S. Army Intelligence to help fight the Nazis, while the sisters aided the British war effort as nurses during the Blitz. Herta immigrated to the United States in 1942. She had to begin Medical School all over again but had difficulty finding a school that would admit her since women medical students were still a rarity. When Western Reserve University finally did admit her into its class, she had to support herself by doing autopsies for the Pathology Department while in school. Seven-day work weeks were the norm for Dr. Spencer-Laszlo throughout her long career.
After she completed her degree in 1948, Herta began her scientific career at Montefiore Hospital in Bronx, NY, where she collaborated with her husband (my grandfather), Dr. Daniel Laszlo. Together, they founded the world's first laboratory dedicated to the study of metabolism in humans. A pioneering woman in the medical world, Herta published more than 250 scientific papers, including numerous articles on the effects on humans of strontium-90, a major radioactive component of fallout from the atomic bomb tests of the '40s and '50s. She was instrumental in describing mechanisms to rid the body of this deadly isotope, information that was to prove invaluable years later when she helped save lives following the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island.
Following her move to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Hines, IL, where she was Chief of the Metabolic Unit and was also Professor of Medicine at Loyola University Medical School in Chicago, Dr. Spencer-Laszlo went on to help define the metabolism of a number of minerals in humans. She became a world authority on osteoporosis, Paget's disease (a bone disorder), and lead poisoning, and helped set the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDAs) for calcium, zinc, and fluoride. In addition to becoming a prominent researcher, she was most satisfied with her keen medical skills that benefited countless patients over the years. She was a frequent lecturer and consultant to the U.S. government.
Dr. Spencer-Laszlo's leadership in medicine and nutrition spanned six decades, until her retirement in 1996. Her devotion to family was constant. A workaholic who rarely went anywhere without a stack of medical papers, she would find excuses to give medical talks at Duke Hospital so she could visit our family. She would bring gifts that reflected the fact that she had never raised children on her own, but that she loved being with us. As my father joined a family tradition of doctor-researchers, Herta and my Dad would speak at great lengths about medical discoveries and the politics of scientific discoveries. Mostly, Herta taught us that if you have focus, work hard, and dream big, you can make major achievements that make the world a better place.
Herta refused to retire and worked until she was in her late eighties. Old age took her mind and forced her to move from caregiver to someone cared for. Luckily for her, her amazing nephew (my cousin Eric) and his wife Micky and their children, Gideon and Anna, created a loving home for her with constant care in their building. She had Shabbats with family, 24/7 care, and constant visits. At 96, she died in her sleep with great dignity and without any pain. She did not want to go to the hospital. She stayed in her own apartment in Riverdale, NY, and was surrounded by family until and including the very end of her life.
Herta is survived by her stepson, John Laszlo M.D. of Atlanta, two nephews, Eric Schon Ph.D of New York and Steven Schon PE of Philadelphia, a niece, Carol Lehman-Wilzig of Petach Tikvah, Israel, and 4 step-grandchildren, myself, and my sister Rebecca Laszlo, brother Daniel Walter Laszlo, and step-sister Kaitlyn Cotanch.