Dr. Betty Lowell Cottle: Making Medicine Better

Note: September is Women in Medicine Month. To celebrate, the Pennsylvania Medical Society will feature the stories of Pennsylvania women physicians who have made a difference in their profession. Email us at stat@pamedsoc.org to tell us about a remarkable female physician you would like us to profile.

Betty Lowell Cottle, MD, lives in a 100-year-old home sitting at the top of a hill overlooking the town of Hollidaysburg, Pa. Dr. Cottle, an anesthesiologist and internal medicine physician, relocated to this home with her husband and three children in the early 1970s.

These days, Dr. Cottle, age 90, keeps busy with a variety of hobbies outside of what her professional life included although she is recognized for her long list of accomplishments and leadership as a physician. She serves on community boards and supports literacy programs.

As a physician, Dr. Cottle blazed a trail for what is now the Physicians’ Health Programs as an early member of the Pennsylvania Medical Society Member Committee for Impaired Physicians. She then served as an intervener to physicians who were impaired. As a result, the PHP is near and dear to her heart.

“Those were interesting times,” she said. “I fought hard for the Foundation and for physicians who needed help.”

She originally was appointed to the committee because she commented that there were no women represented on the committee and “women physicians face the same problems that male physicians do.”

So she found herself learning about the disease and reaching out to her fellow doctors to encourage recovery.

She said that she met the most remarkable human beings through this service and it solidified her pledge as a doctor.

“I took an oath when I graduated medical school to provide service to others. The Foundation let me do that in a meaningful way,” she said.

Physicians struggling with addiction are human. They have put so much effort and dedication into their training, she said, it is hard to watch that go to waste. She likens her involvement with helping those facing the disease to the biblical analogy of being “my brother’s keeper.”

Her role allowed her to fulfill goals she set as a young girl growing up in a Depression-era home in New York. Her father was a minister and instilled a strong social conscious in his daughter.

He told her that she was given gifts and talents and she needed to channel them to pursue something meaningful.

“Can I be a doctor?” she asked in a time when women were less likely to pursue such a lofty professional goal.

“That’s up to you,” her father answered.

“I wanted the chance to make medicine better,” she said.

After completing her education and training, she did just that. As a member of the Blair County Medical Society, she was asked to serve as secretary of the organization. Dr. Cottle suspected that she was assigned that role because she was a woman. However, she accepted because she studied the bylaws and knew that she was an automatic delegate to the state house.

After that, Dr. Cottle was called upon for a variety of leadership roles. One role was chairman of the Board of Directors and CEO of Pennsylvania Medical Society Liability Insurance Company.

She is proud to say that she did not tolerate anything less than a professional approach to the organization.

Dr. Cottle remembers one instance when a fellow board member spoke in a disparaging way about a female patient. She immediately took a stand and said that under her leadership they would behave in a way that showed respect for the people they serve, including those facing compromising circumstances.

“It is part of the integrity of being a doctor,” she said. She remained a strong proponent for women throughout her career and other leadership activities. Despite being what she deemed a “tough cookie,” she said that she became great friends with the individuals she served with and remembers them fondly.

Dr. Cottle’s best memories of her career are from when she was practicing internal medicine, which she pursued actively until the age of 76.

She was also grateful for the times when she could assist other doctors. The Foundation provides another side to the physician image, she said.

“It is an opportunity to use our skills and income to help others,” she said.