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Robert Zeller, MD

Profile written by Robert S. Rust, MD, MA

Robert Zeller, MD

A native of Buffalo, Dr. Robert Zeller received his undergraduate education at Princeton, followed by medical school at the University of Buffalo. He was awarded his MD degree in 1963. His pediatric internship and residency at Baylor (1963-1966). He published his first paper, concerning translocational heterozygosis, in the year that he completed his pediatrics training. Two years of practice followed, an interval that included the publication of a paper concerning complications ventriculoarlerial shunting of hydrocephalus (1967). Dr. Zeller was selected for a Fellowship in Pediatric Neurology at Columbia (1968-1971 ). His experiences there would result in the subsequent publication, with Abe Chutorian, of a paper concerning childhood vascular malformations of the pons that has been cited 26 times.

A charter member of the Child Neurology Society and one of the first child neurologists in Houston, Dr. Zeller quickly became what Gary Clark describes as “the most sought after child neurologist in the city.” Four years after completing his child neurology training, Dr. Zeller was appointed Chief of Pediatric Neurology al the Texas Children’s Hospital – a position he would hold for five years. Despite the considerable clinical demands of this and ensuing epochs of Dr. Zeller’s ensuing chiefly clinical career, he demonstrated from the start an interest in contributing to the clinical and basic scientific and neuropathological medical literature. The first of these reports from Dr. Keller as his associates concerned the histopathology and ultrastructural pathology of eastern equine encephalitis. The second reported the angiographic, electrophysiological, histopathological, and ultra-structural features of Balten Disease. Each of these excellent papers has been cited more than 20 limes. Dr. Zeller also published, together with Hilda Alcala, a paper detailing the mechanisms and neuropathology of cerebrovascular thrombosis occurring in children dying of ketoacidotic coma.

In addition to his clinical studies, early in his career Dr. Zeller undertook, together with Jan Goddard, D Hilda Alcala, Dawna Armstrong and others experimental investigations employing the neonatal beagle model of intraventricular hemorrhage. The work in which he has participated with this group has generated six papers that have characterized the model itself and the role played by hypertension, hypotension, and hypoxia in the pathological features of this important neonatal entity, the last of which has been cited more than seventy-five times to date.

Dr. Zeller’s capacity to interact with others, whether child or adult, quickly became a hallmark of qualities variously described by his colleagues as “exemplary and selfless,” a teacher “not only of the science and art of medicine, but of the human aspects as well,” and a “true master of instilling trust and confidence in his patients and their families.” He is described as a caring person capable of explaining with great compassion “the most complex and devastating diagnosis.” Yet his nature also partakes of optimism that, where appropriate, he has always been able to provide for his patients and families the element of hope engendered by his skillful diagnosis and treatment recommendations that sustains them where treatment may give way to improvement or even resolution of troublesome conditions. His exceptional capacities in diagnosis and communication with patients and their families no doubt derive from the fact that he is said to be a quintessentially careful observer and listener, a person who values virtually everyone he encounters, and a master of communication, whether by words or by the duck-like quacks he is said to surprise anxious appearing children with as they travel together in hospital elevators. This activity demonstrates another characteristic: Dr. Zeller’s unfailing sense of humor.

In 1993 Dr. Zeller was appointed Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at Baylor. In 2005 he was named Chief of the Blue Bird Circle Clinic of the Texas Children’s Hospital. His administrative skills have emphasized attaining the best possible efficiency of care-efficiency for which he is said to be the best possible example despite the fact that he is well-known for his assumption of what is often “more than his share” of clinical and other responsibilities. His explanation for his strong sense of commitment is his unfailing sense that throughout his career that “his patients have given more to him than he has given to them.” Dr. Zeller’s unceasing desire to provide for unrecognized needs is particularly exemplified by his reaction when he was told that one of his patients with epilepsy was not permitted to enroll in a summer camp. His reaction was lo gather enough donors (not least himself) who together raised $12,000,000 that enabled the building of “Camp For AII” to serve the needs of children, adolescents, and adults with disabilities. Characteristically Dr. Zeller not only raised the funds, but also played the critical role in selection of an architect and organization of the plans for the facilities that would best serve their needs. To date more than 100,000 individuals have benefited from this model facility.

Such unstinting devotion to an extraordinary range of self-perceived duties is what one might expect of a person with quite unusually high expectations of personal duty. Whatever else Dr. Zeller has chosen for his way of life, he has chosen and quite generously succeeded in his desire to better the human condition. Charles Gay has indicated that Dr. Zeller, physician, scientist, administrator, organizer, and teacher is an individual that is “passionate about people.” The unceasing demands of that particular trait throughout his career have generously been met by the unceasing employment of his exceptional capabilities for a wide array of purposes intended to assuring that others become “healthier, happier, and fulfilled.” As to who the “others” are, it is evident that he has included not only his patients and their families, but his students, residents, colleagues, the wide array of other professionals engaged in the care of his patients, and not least, his own family.