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Dr. Barbara Rockett, first female president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, dies at 89

In addition to her many other accomplishments, Dr. Barbara Rockett was a fine equestrian.
In addition to her many other accomplishments, Dr. Barbara Rockett was a fine equestrian.

As a surgical resident 60 years ago, Dr. Barbara Rockett was 8½ months pregnant, moonlighting and making house calls for $10 a visit, when she arrived at a Newton house and climbed three flights of stairs to visit a man in distress.

He told her his symptoms, she checked his vital signs, and then called an ambulance after diagnosing a leaking aortic aneurysm.

“When the ambulance arrived, the drivers tried to put me on the stretcher, thinking that I was the patient,” Dr. Rockett recalled decades later. “I said, ‘No, no, no. He’s the patient, I’m the doctor!’ ”

A physician who put the care of others before her own comfort in a decades-long career, she was the first woman to serve as president of the Massachusetts Medical Society.

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Dr. Rockett, who lived in Brookline and kept making house calls into her 80s, until her health declined in the past couple of years, died last Tuesday. She was 89.

“My mother always was of service,” said her daughter, Julie of Charlestown. “It was her driving force.”

In 2006, the Massachusetts Medical Society presented Dr. Rockett with its Lifetime Achievement Award, though her achievements continued as she kept serving on numerous boards and seeing patients.

Having become a physician at a time when few women attended medical school, she was a role model and mentor for younger women in the profession — for accomplishing so much at a time of extreme gender imbalance and for crafting a work-life balance before the concept was much discussed.

“I’ve tried to be a good wife, a good mother, a good physician, and as a result of it I’ve had to be very flexible in how I am able to control my life on a daily basis,” she said for an American Medical Association interview posted online in 2012 to celebrate Women in Medicine Month.

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Speaking of her success in “raising five wonderful children” while pursuing a complex, expansive medical career, she added: “I feel that if I can do something like that and help others who are following in my footsteps, then that’s most important.”

In a Massachusetts Medical Society oral history interview in 2017, Dr. Rockett summed up her life with a single word: “busy.” That would strike some as a significant understatement. Subsections of her résumé would fill an entire résumé for anyone else.

Dr. Rockett had been president of the medical staff at Hahnemann Hospital and held a host of committee positions at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, where she and her neurosurgeon husband, Dr. Francis X. Rockett, often operated on patients together.

She formerly chaired the Massachusetts delegation to the American Medical Association. And in the mid-1980s, she served two consecutive terms — unheard of at the time — as president of the Massachusetts Medical Society while helping lead successful efforts to craft legislation that curtailed the skyrocketing cost of malpractice insurance.

Along with an active surgical practice, Dr. Rockett was the physician for a dozen colleges, high schools, and other entities, such as the Boston FBI office and the local Carmelite Sisters. And she served on a lengthy list of committees and boards for schools, universities, and other organizations.

“When I look back, I just think, wow,” said her son Sean of Wellesley, one of the two physicians among her children.

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In addition to making house calls, Dr. Rockett never turned away anyone who simply sought a medical opinion, often inviting them to her home. “A friend would call up and say, ‘I’ve got this sore throat and it’s gone into my neck,’ " Sean said. “I don’t think she ever said, ‘Go to the hospital.’ She always said, ‘Come here.’ "

“Barb is so organized, she puts me to shame,” her husband, then chief of neurosurgery at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, told the Globe in 1983. “She has a wonderful ability to accomplish a lot by telephone. I think she has been a tremendous role model for younger women by proving a woman can be a doctor and a wife and mother as well.”

Born in Boston on March 10, 1932, Barbara Ann Payne grew up in Newton and Brookline, the only child of John Payne and Julie Cluff.

They owned a restaurant and a hair salon, and also operated a publishing house that Dr. Rockett ran for a time when she was raising her children, working as a surgeon, and conducting heart surgery research.

While becoming valedictorian of her Mount Alvernia Academy class, Dr. Rockett was an accomplished competitor in equestrian events, winning the New England working hunter/jumper championship.

At Wellesley College, inspired by “a wonderful biology teacher in high school,” she studied sciences, but didn’t give much thought to becoming a physician until someone suggested she apply to medical school.

In the oral history, Dr. Rockett recalled being among five women in a class of more than 150 at Tufts University School of Medicine. “I would be the token woman on the softball team and going to the various events with the classmates,” she said.

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Still, “I never felt discriminated against,” Dr. Rockett said in the oral history interview, adding that “my classmates were very supportive.”

She also was the first female resident at Boston City Hospital, where she met her future husband.

Dr. Rockett recalled that after she and Francis were set up on a blind date in late 1957, “we were engaged in three weeks and got married five months later, because he was going in the Navy.”

While raising five children, her home life was as full as her career.

“What really stands out to me always is that her boundless energy just kept her going,” said her son Fran Jr. of Hingham. “I remember her coming from surgery, picking you up, bringing you to your sports event.”

Her son Peter of Needham said that “we all have 24 hours in the day, but she just seemed to squeeze every ounce out of every one of them.”

In addition to her husband, three sons, and daughter, Dr. Rockett leaves another son, William of Sherborn, and 15 grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will be said at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday in St. Ignatius Church in Chestnut Hill, the church where she and her husband married. Burial will follow in Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain.

A livestream link is listed in Dr. Rockett’s death notice, in which the family suggests that those who attend wear pink and green, her favorite colors for the bright outfits that were her trademark.

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Among many honors throughout her career, she was especially pleased that the Massachusetts Medical Society named the Barbara A. Rockett MD Early Career Physician Leadership Award for her.

“She really was moved,” said her son William, who also is a physician. “While she was a strong person, well-recognized in the medical society, this recognized her maternal sense, the ‘I need to take care of these young people, to be the person who looks out for the medical students and residents.’ "

For Dr. Rockett, her work family and her own family in particular were always paramount.

“I have really enjoyed my career as a physician,” Dr. Rockett told the Globe in 1983, “but I have always felt if anything interfered with the raising of my family, my family would come first.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.