Lettie Marie Burgett

Published 1:29 pm Monday, November 21, 2022

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PALOS VERDES ESTATES, CA – Dr. Lettie Marie Burgett, MD, was the tide: awesome, dependable, beautiful, and magnetic. She was also the wind: infinite, forceful, and gentle by turns, and always at your back. Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1949, she grew up in a household full of love and music, the third child and eldest daughter of Arthur and Ruth Burgett. Lettie set her sights early on following in the professional footsteps of her own pediatrician, the pioneering and generous Dr. Helen E. Nash. In this, as in many other realms apparently closed to little girls like herself, Lettie would defy limitations and achieve boundlessly. She studied so hard as a child that, to hear her tell it, she wore grooves into the floor underneath her desk. She would graduate from Rosati-Kain High School before attending the University of Rochester, where she majored in biology on a full-tuition scholarship which she supplemented with odd jobs to make money for books and supplies.

In her college years, she built on a family committed to social justice, engaging in activism that would inform her future contributions to the well-being of her own and other communities. Upon receiving her BA, she moved on to medical school at Harvard University, entering 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 embarked for Los Angeles to begin a residency at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. She completed her training in 1978 under the mentorship of Dr. Joseph W. St. Geme, Jr., a leader in pediatrics and chair of the department.

In forty-seven years of practice as a pediatrician, Lettie had an incalculable impact on thousands of parents and children. She was guided throughout her career by the simple fact of her love and admiration for children. She would often quip, “Don’t become a grownup!” as she insisted on the wisdom and intrinsic goodness of children, and the need to respect and listen to them. This love and respect made her a treasure to her patients and colleagues alike. Beyond her clinical work, Lettie strove to generate a broader, better world of opportunity for aspiring physicians from diverse backgrounds. She was a charter 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 one term as its President. In this latter capacity, she received an award for outstanding leadership in 2006.

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Recounting her scholastic and career achievements, however, may mislead those less familiar with the tenor of Lettie’s life. She was humble to the point of selflessness and possessed a remarkable lack of concern for material and/or professional acquisition. Lettie was a fierce and tireless friend; a peerlessly devoted, proud, and loving sister; and a joyful, brilliant, wise, towering mother. As a wife, she filled life with her love, wit, humor, care, steadfastness, 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 immensely enjoyed music, singing (including a stint with Boston’s Handel and Hayden Society), exercise, yoga, and traveling. Lettie and Ben shared memorable trips to national parks, the California coast, Europe, and Natchez, MS (Ben’s hometown).

Surrounded by members of her family, Lettie passed peacefully on Aug. 13, 2022, at her home in Palos Verdes Estates, California. She was 73. She is survived by her husband, Benjamin; her son, Chris, and his wife, Monica; her son, Ben, and his partner, Mark; her grandchildren, Jaya and Desmond; her sisters, Mary, Maggie, and Cathy; her brothers-in-law, Kimble, Jerry, and Wolfgang; and thirteen beloved nieces and nephews. A memorial event will be planned at a future date.