Bringing CNS Members Together to Make Children’s Lives Better


Mary L. Zupanc, MD

Profile written by Bruce H. Cohen, MD

Mary Zupanc, MD

Mary L. Zupanc, MD, was destined to be an advocate and humanist. It is a true honor to write her brief biography for the CNS members. These paragraphs only begin to describe Dr. Zupanc’s accomplishments as an advocate for the community. The Arnold P. Gold Foundation Humanism in Medicine Award recognizes the CNS member who has demonstrated “extraordinary and ongoing humanism in their medical career.” Mary was selected by the Child Neurology Society Awards Committee to be the 2021 recipient. This award is supported by the Gold Foundation and reflects the life and work of Arnold P. Gold, MD (1925-2018), an original member of the CNS, the 2005 recipient of the CNS Lifetime Achievement Award and a respected child neurologist who embodied the tenets of humanism. Many of us were fortunate to have either worked alongside Dr. Gold, or were lucky enough to have been one of his trainees.

Mary’s story starts long before she was born. Her mother was a registered nurse and joined the US Army Nurse Corps during World War II, serving in a hospital unit in France, as American paratroopers entered Germany. Her father turned 18 years old on Pearl Harbor Day 1941, enlisted immediately in the Navy, and started his quest to be a physician. Her parents met after WWII at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Mary was born in Milwaukee, WI while her father was away on military duty. As a baby, Mary moved with her parents to Japan, where her father was stationed during the Korean War. Following the war, her family relocated to Duluth, Minnesota and finally Monroe, Wisconsin, a small town of 8000, about 40 miles southwest of Madison, which she considers home.

At the time of Mary’s graduation from high school, only about 40% of her classmates went on to college. During her senior year in high school, she was told by her guidance counsellor that she had four life choices: to become a teacher, secretary, mother, or nurse. She was actively discouraged from a career as a physician, and dutifully began her nursing studies at the University of Wisconsin. Mary remembers her father telling her that if she entered medicine, she “would be taking the place of a man.” Mary was an outstanding math and science student and did just fine in her studies, noting that as a nursing student she participated in the same classes in pharmacology and physiology that the medical students attended. During her nursing studies, Mary met Ray (Raymond W.M.) Chun, MD (1926-2014, whose seminal role in the Child Neurology Society includes being a member of the “LaCrosse 8” responsible for founding the CNS and planning its first meeting Ann Arbor, Councillor for the Midwest on the Executive Committee (1973-75), Secretary-Treasurer (1975-1978) and President (1982-83), for which he was honored in 2006 with presentation of the Lifetime Achievement Award. Dr. Chun made a deep impression on Mary with respect to how to treat children and their families, and would later bring Mary into the specialty. Following completion of all her credits for a nursing degree, Mary decided to take another path with additional coursework, having fallen in love with genetics, thanks in part to the teaching and mentoring from two genetic greats: John Opitz and W.K. Smith. Mary never received a nursing degree but did graduate from the University of Wisconsin with 144 credit hours and a degree in Zoology.

At the advice of her college professor, Mary arranged to spend a year in a genetics lab at University of California Los Angeles. She spent a year in a wonderful lab, as well as drove a truck for the UCLA Co-Op, but did not think laboratory research was her calling. She decided to apply to medical school, again against the will of her father. Mary recalls her father telling her that these actions were disrespectful to her mother (a nurse). Regardless, Mary was accepted and attended UCLA Medical School, graduating first in her class, the first woman to have achieved that distinction. It was probably ten years later that Mary and her father began to reconcile after Mary diagnosed her father’s congestive heart failure (missed by his physicians) and got him into the care of an excellent – female! – cardiologist. Mary’s father soon afterwards thanked Mary for “saving my life” and their relationship blossomed.

Mary entered pediatric residency at Seattle Orthopedic Hospital, now known as Seattle Children’s Hospital. She had intended to spend all three of her pediatric training years in Seattle, but found herself in the middle of a serious controversy during her second year. As Co-President of the Housestaff Association, she and other residents were faced with long duty hours. This, of course, occurred a decade before the Bell Commission’s findings resulted in 80-hour work weeks for residents. Mary’s colleagues in surgical subspecialties were routinely expected to work 72 hour shifts without scheduled breaks. In an attempt to draw attention to these unsafe conditions, the Housestaff Association organized a respectful and safe resident work slowdown. Her program director threatened Mary with making sure she would never receive her board certification in Pediatrics, but that never came to be. Mary decided to spend her third year at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, California under the mentorship of Dr. Joseph St-Geme. At some point during all this turmoil, Mary re-engaged with Ray Chun, who convinced Mary to enter Child Neurology. She loved her time with Dr. Chun and found him to be a kind man who would often engage, by midwestern standards, in a unique method of examining children – by singing or dancing with them. Mary describes Ray as being despondent at how little he could offer his patients with epilepsy and asked that Mary take on this branch of Child Neurology as her career choice. Subsequently, Mary spent six months expanding her knowledge of epilepsy, dividing her time between Stanford, where she studied neonatal EEG with Dr. Barry Tharp, and UCLA, where she studied magnetoencephalography and the surgical treatment of epilepsy with Dr. Wm. Sutherling and Dr. Jerome Engel, Jr. She then returned to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for several years before being wooed by Dr. Gregory Cascino to join the faculty at The Mayo Clinic. Mary loved her time at Mayo but, in part because of family needs, moved to New York City to Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, where she met Arnold Gold, the founder of this award. During Mary’s time at Columbia, she fostered a close friendship with Dr. Gold. Like many of us who were fortunate to have spent time working with him, Mary saw and appreciated how he advocated for the needs of children. Some of Mary’s fondest memories were her deep conversations with her friend and mentor, Arnold Gold.

Dr. Zupanc then went back to her roots – Wisconsin, to the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, where she led the Child Neurology Division for a decade before moving to her current job 10 years ago at University of California – Irvine/Children’s Hospital of Orange County. She spent eight years growing and leading the division, initiating the epilepsy program and further developing the training programs in both epilepsy and child neurology before being appointed as the co-Medical Director of the CHOC-Children’s Neuroscience Institute.

Dr. Zupanc has been an advocate for children both at the bedside and working as part of larger organizations. Not only has Dr. Zupanc been a superb clinician, she has moved the field of epilepsy therapy forward, built two large and successful divisions of child neurology, and been a successful educator. At the bedside, she has been a strong advocate for children and their families.

Mary has given back to her profession with her time and expertise, serving her colleagues in the CNS as Councillor for the West (2016-2018), as well as her patients and families with a six-year commitment as a board member for the Child Neurology Foundation during a critical period of the CNF’s growth. Mary has gone beyond the traditional “safe” service to the community but has also taken some professional risks in her advocacy path. She was a member of the board of directors for Physicians for Social Responsibility, the American branch of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) during the period when this organization was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (1985). One of her proudest moments was traveling to the USSR and meeting with Soviet physicians holding the same passion for peace and sharing with them the elation felt, not long afterward, when USSR President Gorbachev instituted the unilateral nuclear test ban treaty.

Finally, Dr. Zupanc has done mission work in India, Vietnam and Armenia, where she has taught and delivered medical care in remote areas. She has also been involved in family and community outreach to the underserved in the United States, including Native Tribes, Hmong refugees, inner city Black and Latino communities.

This award has been given for a career-long effort of compassion and humanism in medicine. “One of the wonderful things about child neurology,” Mary explains, “is that you often embark on a decades-long journey with families. My patients and families have taught me so much about life, humility, how to truly listen, and be open-minded. They transform you. . . in the same way that, hopefully, you change a child’s life and a family’s life by working together for a cure. That’s what this profession is all about, and why it has always been more than a job for me. It’s a calling.”