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.

Topics: Holocaust, Medicine
7 Comments

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I feel so fortunate to have met Dr Spencer during my dietetic internship at Hines. It didn't take long to realize that when you spoke to her, you were in the company of an exceptional person. I would have loved to have followed in her footsteps in research. Although that did not happen for me, it's a dream that I love to revisit.

In 1954-56 I was a Resident on the Montefiore Oncology Service first, and then Research Fellow working with Drs Spencer and Laszlo. Such wonderful clinicians, such erudite and gifted scientists, and such enthusiastic teachers and guides to their staff. There was an attitude of co-operative zeal as we worked with beta and gamma emitters and did our metabolic balance studies which memory still delights me after 53 subsequent years in medicine prior to recent retirement. Thanks for this beautiful tribute to Herta. Sidney Fink MD, Hampton VA

A jewish doctor of this name has worked at the clinics of university of cologne till april 1933. Is he your ancestor? any information would be very valuable for my research. best regards eirini , historian, cologne

Jennifer,

I came across this article and read it with a thankful heart to have known Herta from the times she visited your Dad in Atlanta. The first time I met her she walked by my desk and noticed the Diet Coke and Snickers bar and quickly remarked what an awful diet that is for me! On a later visit she invited me to meet her at the Ritz-Carlton in Buckhead for lunch -- it didn't take long to recognize the compassion she had for her work.

What a wonderful article and tribute to your family.

Thank you for sharing it.

Debbie Hughes Formerly the Executive Assistant to John Laszlo, MD -- another truly great person.

Jennifer,

I came across this article and read it with a thankful heart to have known Herta from the times she visited your Dad in Atlanta. The first time I met her she walked by my desk and noticed the Diet Coke and Snickers bar and quickly remarked what an awful diet that is for me! On a later visit she invited me to meet her at the Ritz-Carlton in Buckhead for lunch -- it didn't take long to recognize the compassion she had for her work.

What a wonderful article and tribute to your family.

Thank you for sharing it.

Debbie Hughes Formerly the Executive Assistant to John Laszlo, MD -- another truly great person.

I have found the name dr. Daniel Laszlo in an archival document at the Cologne city archive, before it had its breakdown in March 2009, saying that he left Cologne in May 1933 after having listed as a Jew. He till then had worked in a Hospital in Cologne called "Medizinische Klinik" which was a part of the university of Cologne. The director was a Prof. Eppinger. Is there any possibility that this D. laszlo is the husband of the here represented women? Unfortunately I don't have any birth dates, I aonly know he left for Vienna in 1933. Best regards Eirini

I have found the name dr. Daniel Laszlo in an archival document at the Cologne city archive, before it had its breakdown in March 2009, saying that he left Cologne in May 1933 after having listed as a Jew. He till then had worked in a Hospital in Cologne called "Medizinische Klinik" which was a part of the university of Cologne. The director was a Prof. Eppinger. Is there any possibility that this D. laszlo is the husband of the here represented women? Unfortunately I don't have any birth dates, I aonly know he left for Vienna in 1933. Best regards Eirini

Herta Spencer-Laszlo, M.D, a leader in nutrition and medicine.
Courtesy of Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Herta Spencer-Laszlo, 1911 - 2007." (Viewed on July 21, 2019) <https://jwa.org/weremember/spencer-laszlo-herta>.

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