After beginning high school in Atwood he transferred to Blue Island, a suburb of Chicago, where he lived with an uncle. During summer vacations he attended Winona State Teachers College in Indiana. He graduated from high school at seventeen. In 1914 Rovenstine, an excellent baseball catcher, entered Wabash College on an athletic scholarship. He graduated from Wabash with a B. A. in chemistry in June 1917. In 1923 he entered the Indiana University medical school. He spent the first year on the Bloomington campus and the last three at Indianapolis Hospital. He received his M. D. in 1928 but spent an additional year as an intern.
After high school, while teaching for a year at a one-room grammar school at Stony Point, Ind. , Rovenstine lived on his maternal grandmother's farm and made extra money by trapping. During his college years he worked in an assortment of jobs and extracurricular activities on campus. At the summer vacations he worked for the H. J. Heinz Company and played semiprofessional baseball.
After graduation, he enlisted in the Army Corps of Engineers, initially as a sergeant instructor in demolition. Then he was sent to France as a second lieutenant and reassigned to a courier detachment. Rovenstine later cited his experience as a dispatch rider, moving among wounded troops who were suffering from shock and pain, as a factor in his choosing a career in anesthesia. After a few months with the Army of Occupation, Rovenstine was discharged in the summer of 1919.
He began teaching and coaching in Menominee in northern Michigan, working at extra jobs. In 1920 he took a similar teaching position in La Porte, Ind.
By 1923 he had saved enough money to pursue a career in medicine. In 1929 he set up medical general practice at La Porte. Two years of a worsening economy and his own preference for specializing led him to decide to enter anesthesia training. While a medical undergraduate he had become interested in it through personal encouragement from Dr. Arthur E. Guedel. After taking a six-week course under Elmer I. McKesson of Toledo, Ohio, in 1930, he became in 1931 a resident under Dr. Ralph M. Waters at the University of Wisconsin, in what was probably the best anesthesia program in the nation.
Rovenstine was promoted to instructor in 1932; he became assistant professor in 1934. Mature, methodical, and diligent, he impressed Waters as especially promising. With Waters' strong backing he was chosen early in 1935 to head up a new anesthesia program at Bellevue Hospital and New York University (NYU) medical school.
After only two years he was promoted to full professor and added the NYU College of Dentistry to his domain. By 1942 he had made Bellevue Hospital the showplace for anesthesia in New York City and the East. Prolific writing, leadership in professional societies, and a flair for promotion brought him success and fame. In 1936 he was elected president of the American Society of Regional Anesthesia. In 1937 he was one of the nine founding members of the American Board of Anesthesiology. In 1938 he served as visiting professor of anesthesiology at the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford University, and in 1939 he served similarly at the University of Rosario, Argentina. From 1941 to 1946 he was a member of the National Research Council. With his passion for excellence, he often ruffled colleagues' feathers. Whenever accused of playing politics, "Rovey, " as he was affectionately known to some friends, would reply, "Just an Indiana boy. "
Rovenstine wrote over 200 articles and 15 textbook chapters and also pioneered postgraduate seminars at NYU. Rovenstine combined a capacity for hard work and a flair for promotion with the opportunities offered at Bellevue and NYU. Training some of the best anesthesiologists in the country, he extended the model Waters had developed at Wisconsin. Although a hard taskmaster in molding specialty physicians of scientific precision and human compassion, he provided an entrepreneurial devotion to his students' later advancement.
Rovenstine was married to Agnes Lane, whom he had met in college. They were living in a small Manhattan apartment, with little social life. One Sunday afternoon, while he was attending a professional football game, she committed suicide. In 1939 he married Jewel Sonya Gould, a successful businesswoman.