Lettie Marie Burgett
Posted at 1:29 p.m. on Monday, November 21, 2022
PALOS VERDES ESTATES, CA – Dr. Lettie Marie Burgett, MD, was the tide: awesome, dependable, beautiful, and magnetic. She was also the wind: by turns infinite, powerful and gentle, and always at her back. Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1949, she grew up in a home full of love and music, the third child and oldest daughter of Arthur and Ruth Burgett. Lettie set her sights early on in the professional footsteps of her own pediatrician, the pioneering and generous Dr. Helen E. Nash. In this, as in many other areas seemingly closed to little girls like her, Lettie would defy boundaries and achieve without limits. She studied so hard as a child that, to hear her say it, she wore grooves in the floor under her desk. She reportedly graduated from Rosati-Kain High School before attending the University of Rochester, where she majored in biology on a full scholarship that she supplemented with odd jobs to earn money for books and supplies.
During her college years, she relied on a family committed to social justice, engaging in activism that would inform her future contributions to the well-being of her own community and others. After graduating with her BA, she went to medical school at Harvard University, entering it just twenty years after the school graduated its first black woman. One of only five women of African descent in her class of nearly 150 students, she graduated in 1975 and sailed to Los Angeles to begin residency at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. She completed her training in 1978 under the mentorship of Dr. Joseph W. St. Geme, Jr., a pediatric leader and department chair.
In forty-seven years of practice as a pediatrician, Lettie has had an incalculable impact on thousands of parents and children. She has been guided throughout her career by the simple fact of her love and admiration for children. She often joked, “Don’t grow up! as she insisted on the wisdom and intrinsic goodness of children, and on the need to respect and listen to them. This love and respect has made her a treasure to her patients and colleagues. Beyond her clinical work, Lettie has strived to create a wider and better world of opportunity for aspiring physicians from diverse backgrounds. She was a founding member of the Association of Black Women Physicians; she taught for decades as an assistant clinical professor at Harbor-UCLA; and she served on the board of the Los Angeles Pediatric Society, including a term as president. As such, she received an award for outstanding leadership in 2006.
However, recounting her educational and professional accomplishments may mislead those less familiar with the tenor of Lettie’s life. She was selflessly humble and possessed a remarkable lack of concern for material and/or professional acquisition. Lettie was a fierce and tireless friend; a devoted, proud and loving sister without equal; and a cheerful, brilliant, wise and imposing mother. As a wife, she filled life with her love, wit, humor, caring, firmness and strength. She met her husband, Benjamin Cowan, in 1975 when they were both interns at Harbor General Hospital-UCLA Medical Center. The couple married in 1976 and had two sons, Benjamin and Christopher. Lettie enjoyed music, singing (including a stint with the Handel and Hayden Society of Boston), exercise, yoga, and travel immensely. Lettie and Ben have shared memorable trips to National Parks, the California Coast, Europe and Natchez, MS (Ben’s hometown).
Surrounded by family members, Lettie passed away peacefully on August 13, 2022, at her home in Palos Verdes Estates, California. She was 73 years old. She is survived by her husband, Benjamin; his son, Chris, and his wife, Monica; his son, Ben, and his partner, Mark; his grandchildren, Jaya and Desmond; his sisters, Mary, Maggie and Cathy; his brothers-in-law, Kimble, Jerry and Wolfgang; and thirteen beloved nieces and nephews. A commemorative event will be scheduled at a later date.
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