Hall of Honor
Frederick C. Robbins, MD
As a young doctor, Frederick C. Robbins, MD, was already well known for his work in infectious disease and pediatrics. However, two important events put him on the path toward greatness. First was his research that contributed to the eradication of polio. Second, was his move from Boston to Cleveland and MetroHealth, where he developed innovative academic programs in infectious diseases and pediatrics.
The Harvard Medical School graduate distinguished himself early in his career both for his clinical work at the Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Boston and for his extensive investigations in isolating the polio virus, a disease that damaged the central nervous system and crippled thousands of children. He shared the Nobel Prize for medicine with Drs. John Enders and Thomas Weller for their landmark research into the polio virus, which led to the development of the first polio vaccine.
In 1952, after receiving a number of tempting job offers from around the country, Robbins chose MetroHealth because of its wealth of outstanding talent and plans for new teaching programs. It was also a major academic institution with nationally recognized doctors, including Charles Rammelkamp, Jr., MD, the hospital’s well-regarded Director of Medicine.
The move proved to be a pivotal moment for both Robbins and the hospital, which was the Midwest repository for the majority of polio cases. He traveled west to meet the polio virus head on.
The pipe-smoking Robbins was only 35 years old when he accepted the position of Director of Pediatrics and Infectious Diseases. At the same time, he was appointed Professor of Pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) School of Medicine. The hospital’s mission to provide care for the poor and indigent resonated with Robbins’ own pioneering spirit. The combination of a public institution for society’s most vulnerable and medical research proved to be a potent partnership. Within his basic lab, housed in the basement of one of the hospital’s oldest buildings, Robbins continued his investigations into immunology and epidemiology.
Yet, his accomplishments reached far beyond the laboratory. As Director of Pediatrics, he implemented a number of necessary, cutting-edge programs. Already recognized for his outstanding work in pediatrics in Boston, Robbins continued with innovations soon after arriving in Cleveland. One of his first priorities was to implement an enrichment program for young patients with long-term illnesses, like polio, who had nothing to occupy their time. Along with social worker Emma Plank, he developed the nation’s first Child Life Program. It is now a requirement of all hospitals that treat children and adolescents.
Robbins, along with Rammelkamp and others, played a key role in advancing what became a nationally recognized teaching program for undergraduate medical students that combined research and patient care. His strong pediatric residency program, which attracted quality staff and students, was one of the first to incorporate outpatient care as part of the curriculum. In 1966, as Dean of CWRU School of Medicine, Robbins laid the groundwork for further advancements in the academic programs.
“Dr. Robbins was an esteemed mentor to countless medical students, residents and fellow faculty members. His kind demeanor and piercing questions and comments earned the respect and admiration of all who were a part of his extraordinary career,” said Richard Fratianne, MD, Director Emeritus of the MetroHealth Comprehensive Burn Center.
Meanwhile, Robbins worked increasingly in the national and international stage. He chaired the Pan American Health Organization commission that was overseeing polio eradication. In 1980, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he served as President of the Institute of Medicine – a part of the National Academies – and chaired the Commission on Life Sciences of the National Research Council. He testified before congressional committees, and in doing so, raised the level of awareness on global health issues and on the disparities in health care in the U.S.
During this time, he also conducted the pilot study for Reye’s Syndrome, which uncovered the dangers of prescribing aspirin for children with viral infections.
Robbins was a member of numerous organizations both at home and abroad. Locally, he was an active member of the Welfare Federation from 1959 to 1962 and of the Public Health Council, State of Ohio, from 1960 to 1963.
Nationally, he served as President for the Society for Pediatric Research from 1961 to 1962; chaired the Awards Committee of the Mead Johnson Program for the American Academy of Pediatrics from 1962 to 1963; Chaired the Allergy and Infectious Diseases Training Grant Committee, NIAID, National Institutes of Health from 1963 to 1964; and was a member of scores of other organizations and societies.
By the time of his death in 2003, Robbins had received numerous awards, including the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1954; the Award for Distinguished Achievement, (“Modern Medicine”), in 1963; and the Benjamin Franklin Medal of the American Philosophical Society in 1999.
When he received the Modern Medicine Award in 1963 for distinguished achievement, Robbins offered this prescription, “We should abandon the peephole approach and take note of the total stream of life. Life is a dynamic continuum, with the status at any one point in time being influenced by all that went before, and in turn, having an effect upon all that follows.”
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