A Vanderbilt University Medical Center Alumni Publication

Vanderbilt Medicine

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Mindful of his humble roots, scholarship donor is happy to share his good fortune

By Jennifer Johnston
August 2012

Frank Spencer, M.D. Photo by Elena Olivo.

Frank Spencer, M.D. Photo by Elena Olivo.

Frank C. Spencer, M.D. ’47, keeps a picture of an old, dead mesquite tree on his office wall at New York University’s Langone Medical Center.
“It’s to remind me of where I came from,” he explains. “I was born on the other side of that tree on a farm in Texas. It’s the kind of thing that makes you feel very lucky, which is a strong antidote for arrogance.”

It was out of that sense of gratitude that Spencer and his wife, in honor of his 50th medical school reunion, funded the Dr. Frank C. and Connie Ewell Spencer Medical Scholarship for worthy students who could not otherwise attend medical school. Spencer continues to support the scholarship fund, and more than 30 students have benefited from his generosity. Spencer has also included the School of Medicine in his estate plans, and his bequest gift will further add to the support provided through the Spencer Scholarship.

“I see this scholarship as a payback,” he says. “My interest is funding bright people who need some financial support to get through medical school. The best investment you can make is in bright young people.”

Spencer graduated from college at 17 and applied to two medical schools in Texas. They turned him down, saying he was too young. Overhearing some students discuss the merits of Vanderbilt University, he applied. He received an acceptance letter from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in 1943, beginning his own journey from the lone mesquite tree.
At Vanderbilt, he graduated top of his class as a Founder’s Medalist and headed to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore to begin his surgery training. He trained under famed Hopkins surgeon Alfred Blalock and then followed William Longmire, who helped found UCLA’s medical school, to California. Soon after, Spencer was called for military duty in Korea. It was there that he radically altered WWII-era battlefield procedures for treating arterial injuries, saving many limbs by treating wounds more rapidly with arterial grafts. This was contrary to official military orders, which clearly stated, “All arterial injuries will be ligated.” Ligation of an artery results in amputation of the leg in about 50 percent of patients.

“I wasn’t looking for any recognition. I just didn’t want to take a leg off if I didn’t have to,” he remembered. His techniques spread and Spencer was called to Washington to receive the Legion of Merit Award.

“All that is flattering as long as you don’t believe it too much,” he said. “I have a great disdain for arrogance. Much of your good fortune depends on other people.”

Back in the States, Spencer returned to Hopkins, where he was one of the first surgeons to perform coronary bypass. He later helped start a surgery program at the University of Kentucky and then headed to NYU, where he was chair of the department of surgery for more than 30 years and remains on the faculty as physician director of patient safety.

Supporting students is a way for him to show he remains grateful. “Supporting a university to me is a privilege,” he says. “If you look at the history of civilization, there’s a striking parallel between the growth of civilization and the growth of universities. A university is the best mechanism for transmitting valuable knowledge. Otherwise you’d be reinventing the wheel every 100 years. A university is invaluable to society.”

Still active in his mid 80s, Spencer works at the medical center five to six days a week but takes off one month every year to go bass fishing in Maine. He never harms the fish, just takes a picture and throws each one back.

“I don’t consider myself generous,”

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