Frederick John Spencer, 1923-2014
British-born Frederick John Spencer immigrated twice to America: first to complete a residency in New York, and again in 1956 – this time to stay.
A world traveler whose interests carried him two and one half times around the globe, Spencer chose to settle in Virginia with his wife and children. He served the Virginia Department of Health in a number of capacities, including as State Epidemiologist.
In 1964, he was named Professor and Chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Medical College of Virginia, a post he held until his retirement at age 61. In a two-decade career on the MCV Campus, he also served as the editor-in-chief of the MCV Quarterly, founder and director of the Health Testing Center and Dean of Students and Admissions. In a sign of his popularity, Spencer was asked four times to be the speaker at the medical school’s graduation.
Spencer was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association and the American Journal of Public Health as well as other peer-reviewed journals. In addition, he authored two books, one reflecting his professional interests and the second inspired by his lifelong love for jazz.
His death in June was mourned on the MCV Campus, where a memorial service will be held on Saturday July 19, 2014 at 5 p.m. in the Jonah L. Larrick Student Center, 900 Turpin St.
Dr. Frederick John Spencer, 90, of Ruther Glen, Virginia, died peacefully in his sleep at a private nursing home in Glen Allen, Virginia, on Tuesday, June 17, 2014. With the Virginia Department of Health, he served as Health Director of the Rappahannock Region and later as State Epidemiologist. At the Medical College of Virginia, he was the Chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine and Dean of Students and Admissions.
Born in Newcastle, England, on June 30, 1923, Fred Spencer led a remarkable life, as an athlete, physician, soldier, musician, teacher, public servant, historian, author, and civil rights activist.
His ancestors had been farmers for centuries in Northumberland, England, and he grew up working on his uncles’ farms. His father was a career soldier, who retired to be a tea merchant, and he handed down to young Fred his love of the outdoors.
As a schoolboy, Spencer was named a King’s Scholar, an honor bestowed each year on only a handful of students. When the time came to choose a college, he turned down Oxford and Cambridge to stay close to home, attending Durham University.
Spencer was a world-class athlete. At university, he was on the rugby, cricket, rowing, and water polo teams. Rugby was his best sport, and he was named the starting fullback on the All-University team, the equivalent of an All-American. He could have played rugby for England’s international squad, but instead enlisted in the British Army as soon as he finished university.
With a degree in medicine, Spencer was commissioned as a Captain, and he signed on as a paratrooper with the 6th Airborne Division. Serving in Palestine during the British Mandate, he came under fire on several occasions, the worst when he went to retrieve a wounded soldier during a firefight between Israelis and Palestinians.
Spencer loved to travel, and after the army, he moved to Canada to intern at a hospital in Ontario, which he followed up with a residency at a hospital in New York.
In his teens, Spencer had fallen in love with jazz, and he taught himself the drums by playing along with records on a phonograph in the garage. As a young man in New York, he spent many nights watching his childhood idols perform at jazz clubs on 52nd Street, famed as Manhattan’s Swing Street. Whenever he could, he would sit in at jam sessions.
In 1950, Spencer took a job in southwestern Virginia with the State Health Department. A year later, he went into private practice with two other doctors in Christiansburg. He became friends with area musicians and eventually formed a jazz trio with a trumpet player and guitarist. The trio played at shows and college parties in the Blacksburg area and eventually cut an album at a local radio station.
As much as he loved Virginia, it had always been Spencer’s intention to go back to England. In 1953, he sailed on the French ocean liner, the SS Liberté, where he met Norma Spector, an American woman who would become his wife. Spencer would later remark that it was “a shipboard romance that didn’t end on the dock.”
Married in 1954, Fred and Norma Spencer settled in the north of England, where their daughter, Gillian, was born a year later. The young couple missed the United States, and in 1956, they moved for good with their baby girl to Virginia, where Spencer was named Health Director for the Rappahannock Region.
In 1957, Spencer took a leave of absence to attend Harvard and obtain a Master’s of Public Health before returning to Virginia. The Spencers’ son, Tony, was born the following year at Mary Washington Hospital and is now the Commonwealth’s Attorney of Caroline County.
Spencer was promoted to State Epidemiologist in 1962, and two years later, was named Professor and Chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Medical College of Virginia, a post he held until his retirement at age 61. Over twenty years at MCV, he became also the Editor-in-Chief of the MCV Quarterly, founder and director of the Health Testing Center, and Dean of Students and Admissions.
Between 1964 and 1967, Spencer traveled to third-world countries for months at a time on a grant from the United State Agency on International Development (USAID). He conducted field surveys of six medical schools, 20 hospitals, and 26 medical centers in Brazil, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Fiji, Sri Lanka, and Papua, New Guinea. His travels carried him 2 1/2 times around the world. Based on his research and interviews, he co-authored with Edwin F. Rosinski a book entitled The Assistant Medical Officer: The Training of the Medical Auxiliary in Developing Countries.
Spencer and Rosinski’s book set out a program for training medical officers to serve in the villages of the Third-World, to treat minor maladies and recognize more serious cases that required transport to a hospital. The authors proposed that such officers would serve as the front line in discovering and containing the outbreak of potential epidemics. In 1967, Spencer and Rosinski presented their suggestions to the White House Conference on Health, and the United States adopted their ideas as a centerpiece of its World Health policy. Over the last five decades, medical auxiliaries in developing countries have been instrumental in isolating diseases like the Ebola and Marburg viruses.
Active in the civil rights movement during the Sixties, Spencer served as Vice-President of the Urban League in Richmond, where he worked toward ending racial discrimination in the former Confederate capital.
Popular with the students at MCV, Spencer was asked four times to be the speaker at the medical school’s graduation. In 1984, he retired from MCV as a Professor and Dean Emeritus. He stayed active, as the co-owner of a second-hand bookstore and as a lecturer on jazz and medicine at Elderhostels, and he went cross-country skiing every year until he turned 80.
At the age of 79, Spencer published a second book, Jazz and Death, in which he examined the lives and deaths of great jazz artists. The book was critically acclaimed and enjoyed modest sales in area bookstores and on the Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites.
In addition to his two books, Spencer was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association, the American Journal of Public Health, and Modern Medicine, among other publications.
Spencer was preceded in death by his wife, Norma Spector Spencer; his father, George Edward Spencer; his mother, Josephine Florence Spencer (née Hodgson); and his brother, Peter Spencer. He is survived by his daughter, Gillian Spencer, of Baltimore; his son, Tony, and daughter-in-law, Danielle, of Ruther Glen; his sister, Mary Fulton, of Saltburn-by-the-Sea, England; and his four grandchildren, Lauren Spencer Meyer, Nicholas Spencer Meyer, Josephine Spencer, and Charles Spencer.
In accordance with his wishes, Dr. Spencer’s remains were cremated. A memorial service will be held on Saturday, July 19, 2014, at 5:00 p.m., at VCU’s Larrick Student Center, 900 Turpin Street, Richmond, VA 23219, with a catered reception at the Larrick Center to follow immediately after the service. The family requests that memorial contributions be made to the Ladysmith Volunteer Rescue Squad, P. O. Box 186, Ladysmith, Virginia 22501.