Roberta O’Dell-Smith, who taught biology at the University of New Orleans for nearly 20 years, died July 7, 2016, in Metairie, La. She was 86. O’Dell-Smith was a beloved professor known for her ability to explain complicated scientific concepts with passion.
Born Roberta Maxine O’Dell in Bradford, Penn., in 1930, she was initially interested in studying Italian or English, her husband said, but her mother steered toward the sciences. At a time when few women were entering the sciences, O’Dell went full steam ahead.
She was accepted to Pennsylvania State University in 1947, where she received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 1951 and 1955, respectively. She went on to Duke University to get a doctorate in 1959, researching under the tutelage of Bodil Schmidt-Nielson, a legendary physiologist who made her mark as the first woman president of the American Physiological Society.
O’Dell-Smith joined the faculty of Tulane University following graduate school, teaching urology and physiology at the Tulane School of Medicine until July 1969. While in New Orleans, she met William Smith, whom she would marry in 1966. When she learned she was pregnant in 1969 with what would be their only child, O’Dell-Smith left her position to focus on child-rearing.
In 1976, after son Cameron had started school, O’Dell-Smith joined the faculty of UNO, teaching physiology and anatomy full-time. Earlier in her career, her research interests were in the area of renal physiology in mammals. And though she enjoyed research, William Smith said, she chose to focus her later career primarily on instruction in order to be more available for her son. According to letters on file at UNO, students found her classroom approach incredibly engaging.
Wrote one student, Theresa Fisher, in a hand-written 1982 letter to Michael Poirrier, then-chair of the Department of Biological Sciences, “She not only possessed, but has also mastered those special skills that make her an exceptional teacher—those which include: A desire to teach, a deep concern to make her students understand, the patience and fairness that comes from within, and a true love for her students.”
A year later, a nursing student at Charity Hospital named Ruth Roll described O’Dell-Smith in a letter to Poirrier as, “the best instructor I have ever had.” “It was obvious in her class that Dr. Smith was concerned that her students really learn,” Roll wrote. “If a student showed doubt on his face during lecture, she was quick to pick up on it and elaborated further for that student…What a change to have an instructor that actually got excited and enthusiastic about what she was teaching!”
Clelmer Bartell, who was also on the biology faculty at UNO, first met O’Dell-Smith when they were both graduate students at Duke. The two of them sang together in choir, a hobby William Smith said his wife, a soprano, continued after moving to New Orleans and joining the Rayne United Methodist Church choir.
Bartell said that in graduate school O’Dell-Smith often cooked large meals for her fellow graduate students needing pick-me-ups. As a teacher, she showed similar concern for those around her. “She was just completely devoted to her students and demanded high standards,” Bartell said.
William Smith, who enjoyed 50 years of marriage to the woman many called “Robie,” said his wife was outgoing, an avid reader, a great hostess, a devoted fan of opera and a wonderful travel companion. “She was always lavished with gifts by her students at Christmas,” he said.
O’Dell-Smith retired from UNO in 1995 as associate professor, but returned for one semester to teach part-time in the fall of 1999. She was a member of the American Physiological Society, the Society of Nuclear Medicine, the New York Academy of Science, the American Society of Nephrology and the Mount Desert Island Biological Station as well as numerous other committees and scientific and professional organizations.
Looking back, Smith said he had only regret for the time they had not spent together: “I wish we had married sooner,” he said.
Besides her husband, O’Dell-Smith is survived by son Cameron B. Smith and his wife Leah Lindberg Smith; sister Jacqueline O’Dell; and brother-in-law Raymond I. Smith. The family has planned a private memorial.