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Lettie Marie Burgett – Mississippi’s Best Community Newspaper

Lettie Marie Burgett

Published Monday, November 21, 2022 at 1:29 PM

PALOS VERDES ESTATES, CA – DR. Lettie Marie Burgett, MD, was the tide: amazing, reliable, beautiful and magnetic. She was also the wind: infinite, powerful and soft on turns, and always at your back. Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1949, she grew up in a household filled with love and music, the third child and eldest daughter of Arthur and Ruth Burgett. Early on, Lettie set her sights 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 reach limitless. She studied so hard as a child that, to be told, she wore grooves in the floor under her desk. She would graduate from Rosati-Kain High School before attending the University of Rochester, where she majored in biology on a scholarship that she supplemented with odd jobs to earn money for books and supplies.

During her college years, she built on a family committed to social justice and engaged in activism that would inform her future contributions to the well-being of her own and other communities. After receiving her BA, she attended medical school at Harvard University, just 20 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 left for Los Angeles to begin a residency at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. She completed her education in 1978 under the mentorship of Dr. Joseph W. St. Geme, Jr., a leader in pediatrics and chair of the department.

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In forty-seven years of practice as a pediatrician, Lettie had an invaluable 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 often joked, “Don’t grow up!” while insisting 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 both her patients and colleagues. In addition to her clinical work, Lettie strived to create a broader, better world of opportunity for aspiring physicians from diverse backgrounds. She co-founded 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 president. In this latter capacity, she received an award for outstanding leadership in 2006.

However, recounting her school and career achievements 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 gain. Lettie was a fierce and tireless friend; an unparalleled devoted, proud and loving sister; and a cheerful, brilliant, wise, towering mother. As a wife, she filled life with her love, humor, wit, caring, fortitude, 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 greatly enjoyed music, singing (including a stint with the Handel and Hayden Society in Boston), sports, yoga and travel. Lettie and Ben shared memorable trips to national parks, the California coast, Europe, and Natchez, MS (Ben’s hometown).

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Surrounded by members of her family, Lettie passed away peacefully at her home in Palos Verdes Estates, California on August 13, 2022. 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 cousins. A memorial gathering will be scheduled at a later date.

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