2015 Blue Bird Circle Award

Robert Rust

Profile written by Phillip L. Pearl, MD


Robert Rust

Consummate scholar, physician, historian, mentor, teacher, writer, archivist, ethicist, humanitarian, scientist, musician. Research interests as wide as they are deep. A man for all seasons. All superlatives deserved? Unequivocally, yes. Hyperbole? No. Congratulations to Robert S. Rust, MA, MD on being elected the Blue Bird Circle Training Program Director Award.

Dr. Rust is currently the Thomas E. Worrell, Jr. Professor of Epileptology and Neurology, Professor of Pediatrics, Professor al the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Humanities, and Training Director in Child Neurology at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. His undergraduate degrees (with honors) were in History and English, and graduate studies were taken at the University of Virginia in American and European History and History of Science as Woodrow Wilson National, Thomas Jefferson Governor’s, and Commonwealth Fellowships from 1970-1972 and 1974-1976, flanking a position as Professor and Associate Director of Studies at the International College in Salzburg, Austria in History of European Cultural Development from 1972-1974. He also obtained a certificate in Greek Language, Culture, and History in 1973 at the University of Thessaloniki, Institute for Balkan Studies in Greece. Such is the foundation for a man of great literary and intellectual prowess.

Dr. Rust then transitioned into a position as a Research Associate from 1974-1977 at the Rodeheaver and Jones Microsurgical Laboratories and Department of Surgery at the University of Virginia, followed by matriculation as a medical student at UVA. A strong early influence was Fred Dreifuss, credited as the reason Rob became a neurologist despite a carefully worked out plan to become a surgeon. He went on to pediatric residency at Yale, and neurology and child neurology training at Washington University in St. Louis from 1983-1986. He was then appointed Assistant Professor in Neurology and held a research position in the McDonnell Center for Studies of Higher Brain Function with mentors Joseph Volpe, Joseph Ackerman, and Oliver H. Lowry, working on regional developmental biochemical changes in neonatal brain synthetic processes and energy metabolism using NMR spectroscopy and microhistochemistry.

Other important early influences were Ray Chun, Ed Dodson, Art Prensky, and Laura Ment.

Rob then took a position as Assistant Professor of Neurology and Pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin from 1990-1997, serving as Director of the Child Neurology, Child Neurology Clinics, and Training Program, as well as Director of the Cerebral Palsy Clinic from 1991-1997 at the Waisman Center at the University of Wisconsin. Following a number of named research fellowships starting in 1975, he held an NIH Career-Investigator Development Award from 1992-1997. He then became Associate Professor and Clinical Scholar at Harvard Medical School and Director of Child Neurology Resident Training, Director of Neurology Outpatient Clinics and of Neurological Education at Boston Children’s Hospital. In 1999 he returned to his alma mater in Charlottesville, becoming Professor at the University of Virginia as well as Co-Director of the F.E. Oreifuss Clinics from 2003-2013 and Adjunct Professor of Ethics and Humanities in Medicine from 2012 to the present.

Of the more than 30 awards bestowed upon Dr. Rust, a number specifically dedicated toward teaching emanate from a variety of locations and institutions: Albemarle High School (1971 ), International College in Salzburg, Austria (1974), Washington University Neurology Residency (1984), St. Louis Children’s Pediatrics (1990), University of Wisconsin Medical Alumni (1997), Harvard Longwood Teaching Hospitals (1998), Boston Children’s Child Neurology (1999), University of Virginia Neurology (2000), American Academy of Neurology (2004 including National Honor Role of Neurologic Teachers), University of Virginia Election of the Academy of Distinguished Educators (2006), Child Neurology Society Hower Award (2007).

Or. Rust is known for a remarkable number and level of contributions. Appointed Historian of the CNS in 2009, he has summarized in stunning and insightful detail the career accomplishments of the Society’s major award recipients for clinical and scientific contributions to the profession from 1991 to 2015, i.e. twenty-five years! Additional displays have included “Founders of Child Neurology: An International Perspective,” “CNS Presidents,” “Pioneer Women in Child Neurology,” “International Founders of Child Neurology,” and “Canadian Child Neurologists.” He has been an ambassador for child neurology at every possible level, from the Special Task Force to represent child neurology in the Decade of the Brain, to discussant for selected poster presentations at the annual CNS meeting from 2001-2008, to the CNS Overseas Visiting Professor to Resource Poor Nations (Iran) in 2005. He has given literally scores of invited lectures and professorships throughout the US and in 21 foreign countries. The Raymond Chun Memorial Address given in Wisconsin (2014) may have been among the most poignant. He has served on four editorial boards, including the New England Journal of Medicine Journal Watch for Neurology, and reviewer for 25 journals, including 238 published reviews for the Virginia Quarterly Review of Literature! Anyone who has visited his office cannot fail to be impressed with the overflowing library by this master bibliophile.

Dr. Rust’s research interests and publications are as wide in scope as his intellectual reach. They include developmental brain chemistry with contributions in cerebral energy metabolism; infectious and parainfectious neurological diseases; epilepsy and headache, including their enigmatic relationship; stroke and related syndromes, including alternating hemiplegia of childhood; movement disorders, with an emphasis on Tourette syndrome; head trauma; autism; developmental language disorders; and the history of neuroscience, neurology, and pediatrics. Of most relevance to the current award and certain to have longstanding impact, Dr. Rust edited and personally authored several articles in the issue of Seminars of Pediatric Neurology devoted to “Training of the Child Neurologist in the 21st Century,” addressing the question “what is a child neurologist expected to know by the completion of training?” This served as the substrate for a universal curriculum for training in pediatric neurology that was compiled by the executive committee of the Professors of Child Neurology, distributed to its members, linked up with the ACGME training milestones, and is now in final editing stages.

Dr. Rust’s influence knows no borders. He has been an active member, archivist, and symposia co-chair for ICNA, and held similar positions in the PanHellenic Child Neurology Association and the Child Neurology Society of the Mediterranean. Perhaps Rob is most widely known for his generous and prodigious contributions to the Child Neuro list-Serve, a highly successful venture with more than 1500 participants from more than 80 countries, organized in 1994 by past Blue Bird Awardee, Steve Leber and current CNS President-elect, Ken Mack. Rob’s magnificent input is perhaps best described in the words of Robert Ouvrier, Immediate Past President of ICNA, Foundation Head of the Institute for Neuromuscular Research, and Emeritus Professor of Pediatric Neurology at the University of Sydney:

“From the early days, one particular contributor captured my attention. It was clear from his frequent comments on difficult issues that the commentator was a highly experienced, very balanced, extremely logical and very helpful fellow clinician. What struck me also was not only the depth of his knowledge on so many topics but also his obvious compassion for patients and fellow clinicians as well as his willingness to share his uncertainty, where clear information was sometimes lacking, as it often is in our discipline. What also was most impressive was the length of the responses, which must have taken hours, at times, to research and recapitulate. If they did not require much time, the fact that they could be produced without such a commitment argued for a level of knowledge of phenomenal proportions.

As a result of the value that was evident in the writings of that person, who is, of course, Dr Robert Rust, I took to collecting copies of just about all the postings which he made on the website. One could always appreciate the wit and vast wisdom of a colleague who appeared to have a remarkable humility, in spite of his astonishing erudition and extra-medical interests.

As a result of these regular exposures to Dr Rust’s wisdom, I read some of his more formal medical contributions, such as his monumental chapter on inflammatory diseases of muscle in Neuromuscular Disorders of Infancy, Childhood and Adolescence by Jones and colleagues and his writings on the subject of auto-immune as well as demyelinating diseases of the nervous system and cerebral palsy in children, areas in which he has a special interest. It seems, however, that he has a special interest in just about everything that is relevant to the discipline of child neurology!

I can state with great confidence that there could be few individuals who have reached out so impressively to influence and expand the knowledge and critical thinking of fellow neuroscientists throughout the world to the extent that Dr Rust has … Dr Robert Rust is an exemplar who stands out from most of us, “like a Gothic cathedral surrounded by medieval booths”.

His patience, softness, and Southern gentleman style are not lost on his colleagues, trainees, and patients. In the words of Russell Bailey in the nomination packet submitted along with Howard Goodkin, John Mytinger, and Harvey Singer, “He has influenced the careers of countless students and trainees, and assisted in the development of standards by which child neurologists are trained. One cannot overstate the contributions Dr. Rust has made in preparing the next generation of researchers and clinicians in the field of child neurology.” John Mytinger adds, “There was something more than history taking and examining going on when Rob was in the room … l described it as magical. He would frequently ask children if he or she had someone al home to throw the baseball with…”

On a personal note, if you have the opportunity to deliver a presentation involving an introduction by Rob Rust, take advantage of this lesson in proper introductions and you just may learn something new about yourself. Rob is a devoted husband to Betsy, herself an accomplished ICU and ER nurse, and father to their four sons, Jim (political scientist and father of their three grandchildren), Merrill (website designer), Dave (mechanical engineer at the US Patent Office), and Tom (astrophysicist at Montana State University).