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Hall of Honor

Robert J. White, MD, PhD

Unlocking the mysteries of the brain was at the heart of the thought-provoking medical career of Robert J. White, MD, PhD.  His lifelong study of the body’s most complex organ led White on a journey that was as richly layered as the brain itself.

White’s fascination with the organ that helps define humanity ultimately shaped his career as a neurosurgeon and statesman.  His intense curiosity led him to develop revolutionary life-saving methods and to garner international acclaim as a doctor renowned for clinical brain surgery and advancing knowledge of the body’s central nervous system.  His growing expertise and stature over a four-decade career propelled him around the world, where he advised physicians as well as religious leaders, but he always returned to his home base at MetroHealth.

However, White’s path to a successful career was not easy.  Early challenges wore heavily, especially when White’s father went missing in action during WWII. Consequently, higher education seemed a far stretch in a family facing financial struggles.  However, White’s academic acumen and support from early mentors helped transition the young boy from a life of limited possibilities to a nearly unimaginable future.

After graduating cum laude from Harvard Medical School in 1953, White was guided toward the field of neurosurgery by a mentor at Peter Bent Brigham and Children’s hospitals in Boston, where White was an intern.  Yet, his most significant training occurred in the late 1950s at the Mayo Clinic where, as a member of the neurological staff, he studied the metabolism of the brain and its circulatory dynamics. 

Meanwhile, MetroHealth was undergoing major changes during a transition from city to county status.  In 1961, White was hired to fill a vacancy in the hospital’s Department of Neurology and charged with establishing a brain research lab.  He became the hospital’s first Chief of Neurosurgery and Case Western Reserve University’s youngest full professor.  White cited the opportunities to continue research and to work with internationally acclaimed doctors as two main reasons for accepting the position.  His most vital work, funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health, would continue for the next 37 years until his retirement in 1998.

An MD and PhD, the neurosurgeon’s research drew both accolades and controversy.  His lab became the site of a number of firsts in medical history, including keeping a brain alive with just machinery. 

One of his most important discoveries involved lowering the body temperature so that the brain and central nervous system could be protected during surgery.  The procedure involved cooling the base of the brain and the upper spinal cord of head trauma patients, cervical cord injuries and major surgical procedures, such as tumor extractions.  His hypothermic technique is now a worldwide standard in the treatment of brain and spinal cord injuries.

In the 1970s, White’s research lab received international acclaim as the first to separate a mammalian brain from its body and store it under hypothermic conditions.  In another trial, the head of one monkey was attached to the body of another by reconnecting the veins and arteries.  In both cases, brain wave activity was evident when sensory areas of the cortex were stimulated.  Results showed that the brain could live indefinitely with proper circulation even though the body no longer functioned.  Though considered controversial by some, such experiments laid the groundwork for current studies in stem cell research and figured into discussions about right-to-life issues.  His provocative, cutting-edge work attracted attention from all over the world, resulting in the production of nearly 300 documentaries.

As his reputation grew, White received more invitations to travel abroad and share his medical expertise.  He was a consultant to the Burdenko Institute of Neurosurgery in Moscow and was the only foreign member of both Russian and Ukrainian Academies of Medical Science.  He lectured extensively in the U.S., Russia, China and Europe. 

White became an advisor to Pope John Paul II on medical ethics.  He established the Vatican’s Commission on Biomedical Ethics in 1981 after his appointment to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.  Under his leadership, the committee influenced the church’s stance on brain death and in vitro fertilization.

A prolific writer of over 900 publications on clinical neurosurgery, medical ethics and health care, White served as editor or served on the editorial boards of: Surgical Neurology; Resuscitation; Journal of Trauma; and Neurological Research.  Many of his publications were translated into foreign languages. 

He received numerous awards, including: Svien Lecturer at the Mayo Clinic in 1978; Second Hemphill Lecturer at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago; The Distinguished Membership Award of the Cleveland Academy of Medicine; Ohio Neurosurgeon of the Year in 1983; 1997 Humanitarian Award of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons; and in 1998, he was named the Distinguished Alumni of the Mayo Foundation.  He was also named Catholic Man of the Year in 1994 and was recipient of the Ohio Governors Award.  Samuel H. Miller, dear friend of Dr. White and Co-Chairman Emeritus of Forest City, made a donation to MetroHealth in his honor.

White was once asked what mattered most in the context of his career and the hospital’s future.  He gave this answer: “….the basic belief, almost a religious belief, that the patient is first and any patient will be treated here; nobody turned away, nobody pushed in an ambulance and sent somewhere else, they will be treated here.”

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