Bettina Emerson

Bettina Emerson, 93, died gently and quietly at her home on October 18, 2011, just a day after her wish was granted to return there from a skilled nursing facility. She was born on September 11, 1918 in Kiel, Germany, the only daughter and middle child of Otto (won the Nobel prize for medicine in 1922) and Hedwig Meyerhof. After graduating from high school in Heidelberg, she entered college in Berlin. Her studies were interrupted by Adolf Hitler’s increasing anti-Semitism in the years preceding the Second World War. Thanks to her top grades in high school and help from colleagues of her father and family friends, she was able to sail to the United States in November 1938, arriving just after Kristallnacht. She attended Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania for most of a year and then Johns Hopkins Medical School. In 1943, she graduated, one of nine women in a class of seventy-five. This is the only degree she held. She subsequently was a resident at Babies Hospital in New York City and a board-certified pediatrician.

While at Johns Hopkins, she met and married Don Emerson. When he got a position in the History Department of the University of Washington, she accompanied him to Seattle in 1946. There her five daughters were born. Don and Bettina were among the original eighteen families who founded Hilltop Community in Bellevue, Washington, one of the earliest planned communities on the Eastside and home to a number of noteworthy local architects. While raising her family, Bettina gave her time to Seattle’s pediatric clinic for low-income families. She also led Camp Fire groups for many years. In 1966, she had a post-doctoral fellowship specializing in learning to identify and treat early childhood developmental problems, especially cerebral palsy. She subsequently practiced this subspecialty at both Children’s Hospital and the University of Washington. She served on a committee advocating increased access to care for special needs patients. When she retired from there, she spent four years with the Third Infantry Division of the U.S. Army treating soldiers’ dependents in Germany. One of her colleagues said that there were many instances when her extensive medical judgment and skill allowed her to make a sound diagnosis, even after others had taken a misstep.  As a result, she received the commander’s award for outstanding service on October 10, 1990 for her ‘tenacious devotion to the wellbeing of exceptional family members.’

Later in life, Bettina stayed active by gardening, playing bridge and corresponding with friends and family. She also supported a number of charities, enjoyed concerts, especially piano and chamber music,  and attended Temple Beth Am. She liked to walk in the University of Washington’s arboretum and go to Mt. Rainier. She served as an example to her family of what women could accomplish, that they could be strong and adventurous, and withstand overwhelming adversity. She was always a thinker, and her integrity–personal or academic–could not be compromised.
She is survived by four daughters – Marianne and Ruth Emerson of Seattle, Cam Emerson of New Orleans and Kathleen Acker of Los Angeles, six grandchildren and three great-granddaughters. Her daughter Marcia Emerson preceded her in death.

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. on Sunday, January 8, 2012 at University House, 4400 Stone Way North, Seattle.

The family suggests that if you wish to honor her memory with a charitable donation, you might choose Planned Parenthood, Doctors Without Borders, the Nature Conservancy or one of your choice

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  1. Ronnie Levitt
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    Seattle, WA 98122

    Dear Ruth, Marianne, Cam and Kathleen:

    We were saddened to hear of your mom’s passing, but so glad that she was able to live such a rich life, contributing to the health of so many children here and abroad. She was a model for me of combining a life of professional care of children with raising a family, and I have been struck with what odds she faced in doing this when she began.

    We were lucky to know her and to share in some of your celebrations. My last memory is with Ruth at the Opera, which she enjoyed until the end, which she attended with you, Ruth.

    We will miss her at our Chanukah parties and Sedars, which we were fortunate to share from time to time.

    She will live on in our memories and, of course, yours!


    Ronnie Levitt

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