Mary Lou Byrd was born in Asheville, NC, but when she was two years old, her family moved to New York City. After she graduated from high school, Mary Lou went to Tusculum College, in east Tennessee, from which her father had graduated. Then, she transferred to New York University Washington Square College. In 1931, she earned her Bachelor of Science degree.
From there, Mary Lou went to New York University School of Medicine, in lower Manhattan, which was affiliated with Bellevue Hospital. In June 1935, she graduated with her medical degree, one of five women in a class of one hundred. She then received a medical/surgical internship at Bellevue Hospital for one year. During the next year and a half, she completed an assistant surgical residency at Bellevue. Finally, for the next three years, she was appointed as an anesthesia resident in Dr. E. A. Rovenstine’s program, who was a pioneer in the field of anesthesia. In 1941, she completed her formal education.
Mary Lou heard about a position at Butterworth Hospital, in Grand Rapids, MI, “through a salesman who sold anesthetic equipment . . . [and] was familiar with Butterworth Hospital and . . . the superintendent of the hospital, Dr. Ragsdale, who was interested in having an anesthesiologist come to Butterworth . . ., which at that time was only 220 – 240 beds,” explained Mary. At that time the doctors and nurses were self-taught in anesthesiology and took turns performing that surgical function. “I was expected to supervise the nurses and have a practice [and be] a consultant to the physicians who [practiced anesthesiology] part time.”
In 1941, Mary Lou moved to Grand Rapids. She “felt that [she] had a better opportunity to enjoy what [she] wanted to do [e.g., live in a city and still have a yard and a garden].” In April 1944, Mary Lou married the “ether salesman,” Robert Bruce Cowan, who had encouraged her to move to Grand Rapids. Cowan enlisted in the Army as the country entered World War II. “Eventually, [Cowan] went to officers training school and served in the chemical warfare department, but he never went overseas,” said Mary Lou.
Mary Lou stayed at Butterworth Hospital and practice. She “kept busy.” On April 4, 1945, she gave birth to Bruce Robert Cowan, Jr. Three or four months later, her husband “mustered out of the Army.” In 1951, the couple welcomed a daughter, Mary Jane Cowan. In 1965, Mary Lou’s husband passed away due to a heart attack.
From 1941 – 1959, Mary Lou was the director of anesthesia. Among her accomplishments was starting a residency program, teaching student nurses, and lecturing interns. In 1981, Mary Lou retired. She served as the unofficial “historian” of the Butterworth Medical Alumni. “It never really got off the ground too well; however, a master list of the former interns and residents at Butterworth was prepared with their addresses,” said Mary Lou. She then kept that list up to date, which at that time included 600 living physicians.
During her career, Mary Lou was affiliated with the Michigan Society of Anesthesiologists. She was its secretary/treasurer “for quite some time” and president for one year. She also served on various committees at the state level. She was a delegate when the American Society of Anesthesiologists first started its house of delegates and served in that capacity for 3 – 4 years. In 1942, she was “asked to be a guest examiner for the orals of the American Board of Anesthesiologists, emphasis guest examiner. I never served on the board. That [was] a big difference.” Her other interests included the Grand Rapids Symphony (she was a subscriber for 20 years), St. Cecilia, Women’s City Club, American Association of University Women (she was president from 1944 to 1946 and an honorary member, contributing for over 50 years), and the Westminster Presbyterian Church.
When asked to reflect on her career, Mary Lou said that she had found satisfaction in watching the practice of anesthesiology “from the early days of gas and ether and then . . . growing into the use of intravenous anesthetics to make a pleasant induction of adults and then other anesthetic agents. . . . And so now we have a subspecialty in anesthesia of pain clinics and physicians who are anesthesiologists who only devote their practice to pain.”
Finally, her accomplishments have inspired others in her family to become doctors. Her sister’s middle child, Cynthiane Judith, has followed in her aunt’s footsteps and has become an anesthesiologist. She married an ophthalmologist. Mary Lou’s nephew, her brother’s son, also became a doctor (of infectious diseases), and he married another doctor.
This biography is adapted from an oral history interview with Mary Lou Byrd. Learn more about oral histories here.
“Cowan (Byrd).” Grand Rapids Press. September 30, 1994. America’s News – Historical and Current.