Skip to main content

Jane Petro

Class of 1968

Dr. Jane Arbuckle Petro ’68 spent most of her four years at what was then Florida Presbyterian College preparing to be a “philosopher scientist.”

Then, she says, a former boyfriend and classmate told her it was a good thing she wasn’t applying to medical school as she would never get in. She also couldn’t afford the fees to take the medical school examinations, but that boyfriend agreed to pay them as a bet. She did, in fact, get in: Petro was accepted to medical school at Penn State and started on a path to becoming a successful academic plastic surgeon.

“I had a really good science education at Eckerd and a good thinking education,” she says. “On a multiple choice test, I could probably guess the answer as easily as know it.”

A photo of Jane from the Florida Presbyterian College 1967 yearbook.

As a trailblazer in several arenas—a female surgeon and an out lesbian at a time when it was seen as outside the norm to be those things—Jane Petro ’68 says that a firm knowledge of who she is and what she stands for has been essential to her success and survival. That confidence, she says, has its roots on Eckerd’s campus. Petro says she developed lasting community and values at FPC/EC that helped ground her for years to come.

A self-described “pretty brash person,” Petro says that internal fortitude was needed during medical school and residency, where she faced frequent sexism and gatekeeping from men who didn’t believe she was worthy of the profession.

“I suspect there’s a lot that I don’t remember intentionally,” she says. “There were many, many times when I was told I wasn’t going to succeed.”

While training in Louisville for two years, Petro decided to pursue plastic surgery, inspired by a kind and skilled mentor and the satisfaction she derived from “putting people back together.”

Her career spanned more than 40 years and everything from healing burn victims and reattaching arms as a hospital surgeon to facelifts and tummy-tucks in private practice.

“Once I got into clinical medicine, I loved seeing patients, hearing their stories and talking to people from all kinds of backgrounds,” she says. “I loved the responsibility that comes with taking care of people and being part of a team that manages them.”

Some of the most formative years of Petro’s life and career were also the most painful. In the early 1980s, she came out as a lesbian and went through a divorce from her son’s father. She was working at a Catholic medical school in New York and was unsure what the impact of her coming out would be on her career. But because the timing coincided with the beginning of the AIDS epidemic—and patients that many doctors did not want to care for—despite being a plastic surgeon, she became the AIDS general surgeon for the hospital.

“I just knew I couldn’t live a lie,” she said. “I finally realized that with everything that was going on in the world, I had to come out.”

A few years later, she met her future wife, Dr. Carolyn Becker, an endocrinologist; they have been together 35 years.

She said Eckerd prepared her for that time by teaching her literature and history in addition to biology, thus giving her an understanding of the “dichotomies of life: the highs and lows that can occur simultaneously.”

Four ladies seated on outdoor deck

Florida Presbyterian/Eckerd friends (left to right) Sandy Ripberger ’68, Gerry Sandweisse ’68, Ingrid Mazza-Schottstädt (married to Gabe Mazza ’68), and Jane Petro. Jane says her Eckerd friends have been a lifelong source of support.

Jane with Eckerd President Emeritus Donald R. Eastman III

Jane receives the Carlos F. Barbas II ’85 Award in 2018 from Eckerd President Emeritus Donald R. Eastman III. The Barbas Award honors an alumna/us who has demonstrated achievement in the medical or scientific research field.

Petro has remained involved at Eckerd, giving back by serving as a trustee during the 1990s, philanthropic giving, participating in her Class Reunion committees, and serving on the National Advisory Council. She has also taught several Winter Term courses in retirement, including “The History of AIDS from 1981-1994.” She enjoys spending part of the year in St. Petersburg and pursuing a lifelong passion for sailing.

While she doesn’t believe in giving advice, Petro thinks students today can have a similar takeaway from the Eckerd experience that she had 54 years ago.

“The value of community and the value of being in a community—and of being yourself.”