A pioneer in plastic surgery, Dr. Rose Lewis ’60 holds the distinction as the first female African-American plastic surgeon in the world. From the University of California at Berkeley to running her own private practice in San Francisco, the St. Vincent graduate shared with us her career path and how she has made an impact in the San Francisco community.

What are a few of your favorite St. Vincent memories?

I really enjoyed French and the challenging aspect of that class. Mrs. Gavin wouldn’t address you if you spoke in English. So it was either sink or swim. I participated in the senior plays which was very fun. We also had dances the first Friday of the month...it was always a good challenge in getting male chaperones!

I remember having a great time at those events and look back fondly on that time with tmy classmates. At the time St. Vincent had a two-track system. A lot of students were on the secretary track. The Daughters of Charity decided which track you would be on. I was in the academic track so it was just a question of what I was going to do in college. I enjoyed Latin and now realize how it really helps in learning other languages—that developed my understanding of medical terms later.

What did you do after graduation?

I attended UC Berkeley and finished college in two and a half years. After I got out of UC Berkeley, all I wanted to do was get a job and earn an income.

I began graduate school and started teaching chemistry. I also worked in laboratories and in other science-related positions.

Eight years after I graduated UC Berkeley I went to medical school for orthopedics and plastic surgery. Early on, I wanted to be a doctor, but I also wanted to be a lot of things when I was young. So my true goals were not really formed until after college. I decided that hand grafting and similar types of surgery fit my personality. I enjoy jewelry and crafting so it made sense to me.

As a plastic surgeon you have to be oriented in doing things with your hands. One particular person who trained with me was a carpenter; another one was a professional photographer. It helps to have an eye for spatial relationships.

Tell us about your experience in medical school.

I decided to attend UCSF. It was very difficult to transition from working and having money and giving it all up to go back to school. You go to school for eight hours a day then study for four hours. It was very time consuming and took a lot of commitment.

During medical school I earned an internship at Mt. Zion in general surgery. Then upon graduation, I completed a two-year plastic surgery residence in Phoenix. I soon learned that medicine is always changing and doesn’t stay stable.

What are a few of your professional highlights?

In 1985, I traveled to Kenya for the UN Decade for Women Conference. I spoke to a room of thousands of women from across the world regarding breast disease. I even went on a safari while out there!

When did you become aware that you were the first African-American female plastic surgeon in the world?

In my second year in plastic surgery. There were not a lot of women around then. It was nothing I thought about once I started my residence.

I ended up practicing in San Francisco for 25 years at both the children’s hospital and Mt. Zion.

What advice do you have for students interested in entering the medical field?

You have to be willing to be committed. It takes a lot of time, so you better really want to do it. There were times that I wanted to quit medical school, but I fought through. Once I started my residence, it really paid off.

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