Today, the name Mary Bird Perkins is synonymous with comprehensive, leading-edge cancer treatment. Thousands see that name each day while driving along Essen Lane or near one of the Cancer Center’s nine other locations across southeast Louisiana and southwest Mississippi. But before those three words adorned buildings, it was the name of a trailblazing woman, ahead of her time in many ways. In honor of Women’s History Month, the Cancer Center is paying homage to its namesake.
How Did the Cancer Center Receive its Name?
In the late 1960s, sixteen community leaders headed by Dr. M.J. Rathbone, Jr. and Anna B. Lipsey saw the need for a community-owned, nonprofit radiation cancer facility in the greater Baton Rouge area. With both the vision and financial support of the Baton Rouge community the Cancer Radiation and Research Foundation – now known as Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center – was established.
In 1968, the Foundation held a capital campaign capped by a generous gift of land from philanthropist Paul D. Perkins, whom he made in honor of his late daughter, Mary Bird. In honor of this donation, the board of directors in 1971 named the Mary Bird Perkins Radiation Treatment Center in her honor opened its doors in Baton Rouge. After 14 years of operation, in 1985, Mary Bird Perkins relocated to its present site on Essen Lane, and in 1986, the name of the center was changed to Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center.
Who Was Mary Bird Perkins?
Generous, brilliant, and reserved are terms most often used to describe Mary Bird Perkins. Born in 1927, Mary Bird was a pioneer of her time, becoming one of the first female graduates of the Louisiana State University Law Center in 1950. After practicing law for many years in Baton Rouge, she moved to Paris, France a city she loved dearly, and lived there until 1966 when she passed away unexpectedly.
Gail O’Quin, a Cancer Center donor, called Mary Bird a friend from around the age of 10. Family friends of the Perkins, Gail, more than a decade younger than Mary Bird, quickly bonded over their shared love of animals, particularly poodles. In fact, Gail received her first of many poodles as a gift from Mary Bird’s father following back surgery at the age of 12. The poodle, named Faupas, was endearingly described as a neighborhood thief. From there, Gail fell in love with the breed.
“It’s been poodles ever since,” she says.
Gail, reflecting on the friendship, describes Mary Bird as a big sister of sorts. The pair would often write letters to one another – the contents somehow usually drifted back to their dogs. Beyond animals, Gail remembers Mary Bird as colorful, outgoing and community-driven. Now, more than 50 years after it first opened, Gail believes Mary Bird Perkins would be a source of pride for its namesake.
“She would be thrilled with the work that the Cancer Center is doing, Gail says. “It is most definitely a fitting tribute to her.”