Young Lewis Spencer was a promising student and musician when he was growing up in Franklin, Ind. A newspaper account from the 1930s said he had "exceptional talent" on the piano and violin and noted that he was an academic and athletic leader in his school. But on Aug. 2, 1937, as he was bicycling to the train station to pick up the afternoon papers for his delivery route, 12-year-old Lewis Van Clief Spencer was run over at a railroad crossing by a coal car.
The accident severed his right arm at the shoulder and his right leg between the knee and the hip. He was in critical condition for days, but from the beginning, he showed a witty, cheerful resilience that amazed his doctors and remained part of his character throughout his life.
"He is a game lad," a newspaper story said a day after the accident, "and when asked, 'How are you, Louis [sic]?' he came back with, 'Oh, I'm all right, except that I am minus an arm and a leg.' "
Spencer, who died of dementia Nov. 11 at age 80, had to give up the violin, but he continued to play piano with his left hand, mastering difficult pieces by Alexander Scriabin and other composers. He played trumpet in his school band and became a fine singer.
Always a good student, he became exceptional, concentrating on mathematics and science.
"He realized he was going to have to make his way in life by using his mind," his daughter Dorothy Wagener of Reston said.
After teaching himself to write with his left hand, he became a master one-handed typist, capable of typing 100 words a minute with no errors. He was part of a high school typing team that won a statewide contest, and as a teenager, he appeared on a national radio program, "Hobby Lobby," demonstrating his typing skills and his one-handed piano playing.
After graduating from Franklin College in Indiana, where his father was college president, Spencer went on to Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., where he received a master's degree at age 21 and a PhD in physics when he was 23.
Spencer had to overcome the objections of his future wife's parents -- his mother-in-law called him "half a man" -- before he married in 1948 and came to Washington to work at the old National Bureau of Standards. He was a research physicist for the agency, now called the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and spent more than three decades doing the kind of unheralded work that turns out to have all sorts of unexpected uses.
He was a leading authority on measuring the effects of radiation, and his findings were incorporated into federal guidelines for building standards, fallout shelters and civil defense planning in the 1950s and 1960s. Some of his theories have had applications in such far-flung fields as medicine and submarine design.
For 12 years, Spencer was a physics professor at Ottawa University in Ottawa, Kan., while continuing to hold his position and supervise research at the Bureau of Standards. He came back to the bureau full time in 1969, staying until he retired in 1984.
As remarkable as Spencer's career was, the man himself was even more impressive. While attending graduate school, he taught a typing class in Chicago to disabled students. After World War II, he spoke to wounded veterans about how to deal with disabilities.
He tried for years to get into the Guinness Book of Records as the world's fastest one-handed typist. He could drive a car and could tie his necktie and shoes with one hand. He could walk so smoothly with a prosthetic leg, said his wife, Elizabeth Spencer, that "many people thought he just had a limp."
When Lewis Spencer lived in Kensington and later Gaithersburg, he taught Sunday school and sang bass in the choir at First Baptist Church of Wheaton. He read Shakespeare for pleasure and was a student of history and religion.
"He never really considered himself handicapped," Wagener said. "He just thought he had problems to overcome."
He required his five children to study mathematics at least through calculus, but he also taught them to bowl and throw a Frisbee -- and, in the words of his daughter Mary Ellen Goree, he "was a killer Ping-Pong player."
As a girl in Gaithersburg, Goree learned to play violin on the same instrument that her father had to give up so many years before. It has passed into the hands of her 10-year-old son.
There was one other thing Spencer taught his children. When Goree, now a violinist with the San Antonio Symphony, told her father she wanted to be a professional musician, he gave her advice that had helped him overcome the obstacles he had faced in his life: "You have to believe you are the best in the world at what you do."