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Herta Spencer-Laszlo

Medical Pioneer in Human Metabolism and Nutrition
1911 – 2007
by Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi

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.

Remembering Herta Spencer-Laszlo - John Dennis

There was an ad in the Oak Leaves for a lab technician. I had just a little lab experience and I was attending school full time and had a wife and children. Dr. Herta Spencer interviewed me and said that I could work my hours around my school schedule. When she needed other technicians, it soon became a family affair.

Herta allowed many of us to work while we went to school, and both my brother Stanley and my brother-in-law Jay Means, who was still in high school when he began, worked in her laboratory as did his sister, my wife Melanie. Jay credits Herta for his interest in research, and she continued to mentor him as he received his Ph.D. in food chemistry and nutrition and went on to pursue an active academic career in toxicology. He patterned his laboratory on the example he learned from her.

Our friendship with Herta continued beyond the lab, and Melanie and I often got together with her for chats or for meals. We went to Cosmos, her favorite restaurant, where the owner would give her all of the information about ingredients, and especially sodium and fat content. She would always blot the meat with a paper napkin, to get off any excess fat.

We would occasionally drive past some of her former study patients, as they sat out in Forest Park, and she would ask me to stop. She would inquire about their health, or she would scold them for smoking, or about their weight. They always responded respectfully and, often, apologetically. She kept many of them on the ward longer than their participation was needed, because it was winter and she knew that they lived outside or in questionable conditions. She gave 100% to her work and her caring, and she was surprised and not very understanding when others did not.

I remember one time when someone told her about a new supplier for glassware and other lab supplies—one that would give us quantity prices for smaller quantities, as I recall. I pointed out that our present supplier gave us all of our rubber tubing, corks and brushes without charge.

"Is that true?" she said, in a meditative not a questioning way. "Very good. Then let's keep getting our brushes, tubing and corks from them."This amused her colleague Dr. Samachson greatly, and he told her they weren't going to give them to us if we weren't buying our other supplies from them.

"Ah hah! You see," she said, significantly, looking around the group and nodding with her eyebrows moving up and down, as was her signature expression, to emphasize these "questionable supplier motives." Herta couldn't accept the fact that not everyone was as devoted and freely giving as she was.

When our 17-year-old Rebecca was hospitalized with a collapsed lung, and the doctor and the specialists were stymied, Herta asked to see the test results and diagnosed Rebecca's malady and suggested how they should change their course of treatment. Becka, get better.

Herta often worked with family physicians to help Melanie's Aunt Evelyn with her osteoporosis, my father-in-law with his lymph cancer get into a leading program and study at Duke, and other friends and family members with lesser medical dilemmas. So that the phrase: "Why don't you ask Herta?" became a comforting "mantra" in our family and the six families-of-their-own that evolved. She was invited to every wedding, and several Thanksgivings, and came to them all. And when people asked who the lady with the mysterious accent was, they always said she was dear friend of our family. We all thought of her that way.

Melanie remembers her beautiful eyes that were always focused on her "patient," her subject; her elegant hands that sculpted the air at times as she made her point. I remember her hair pulled into a bun, which always found a few strands coming lose and being brushed back, casually, with her hand as she chatted, going down the hall in her long lab coat.

I am so glad that we received a couple of calls from Herta in her last few months. Our two visits did not find her "on top of her game," but the welcome voice of Lou, her weekend attendant, saying: "John Dennis. Herta told me this morning: 'I must talk to John Dennis,'" was like rolling back the clock, and I was so pleased to talk with her again. We remember that when Herta called and no one was at home, she wouldn't always hear the tone. So a very common message went something like this: "No beep. Nooo beep" or "Hello. Hello-hello." And we find ourselves repeating her "okay-okay" and other Hertaisms, daily. We will miss hearing her voice.

Memories of Herta Spencer-Laszlo - Theda Kashin

My husband, Philip Kashin, is a physiologist and he met Dr.Spencer at a meeting (FASEB or Amer. Physiol.Soc.) in Albany, NY in thelate 1970s. Thereafter, we met at the yearly Gordon Conferences in NewHampshire where we brought 2 of our children along. She was such aknowledgeable scientist as well as being a beautiful human being whoalways expressed an interest in our children, pre-teens at the time.When our son, Tom, broke his arm, Phil immediately called Dr. Spencer whoadvised a combination of Vitamin C, Zinc, and chicken soup, acombination which healed Tom's arm faster than expected, according tothe orthopedist. When our daughter, Sarah, had her first (and only)asthma attack, Phil was away in Chicago for the year and Dr. Spenceragain diagnosed correctly that "… of course, she misses her Daddy."One summer Phil and I and Sarah, who was then about 11 years old, met Herta at a Gordon Conference. One morning Herta and Sarah metin the washroom, and as they were washing up Herta remarked to Sarahhow she had grown since she last saw her. Herta then asked Sarah if sheeats peanut butter. Sarah replied yes, upon which Herta exclaimed "It'sthe zinc! Good! Good! Good!" These words have since become a mantrain our family, and we all know immediately from whence they come.Phil always contacted her at the Hines V.A. Hospital when he was in Chicago.In our house her name was greatly respected. For me, as a non-scientist, it was Herta's great humanity that was so evident and that struck me most. She was a great lady and theworld is much poorer without her.

More on: Holocaust, Medicine
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Herta Spencer-Laszlo.
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Herta Spencer-Laszlo, 1911 - 2007." (Viewed on September 18, 2014) <http://jwa.org/weremember/spencer-laszlo-herta>.

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