Former medical school dean Robert Glaser dies at 93

Robert Glaser

Robert J. Glaser, MD, former dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine and a national figure in medical education, died June 7 at his home in Palo Alto, surrounded by his family. Glaser, whose health had declined in recent years, was 93.

As dean and vice president for medical affairs at Stanford, Glaser oversaw the purchase of the city’s share of the Palo Alto-Stanford Hospital in 1968, paving the way for the development of the Stanford Hospital and the Stanford University Medical Center of today. He also laid the foundation for the growth of the basic sciences at the medical school, helping to build it into a world-class, research-intensive enterprise.

Prior to coming to Stanford, Glaser played key roles at both the University of Colorado School of Medicine and the Harvard Medical School. After his tenure at Stanford, he helped promote medical education and scholarship nationally through his leadership in multiple organizations and major nonprofits, including the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, the Lucille P. Markey Charitable Trust, the Alpha Omega Alpha national medical honor society and the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.

“Dr. Robert Glaser was an extraordinary figure in American medicine and at Stanford specifically,” said Philip Pizzo, MD, the current dean of the medical school. “Dr. Glaser’s vision shaped Stanford Medicine as we know it today, and his contributions have had an indelible mark on individuals, institutions and communities, locally and globally.

“I was privileged to know Dr. Glaser as a colleague and advisor whose insights were deeply valued and much appreciated. His was a life of meaning, significance and impact,” Pizzo added.

Trained as an internist, Glaser was also known as a caring person, who never lost sight of his patients or of the value of basic clinical skills.

“He was always proud to be an internist and clinical researcher. He valued those old-fashioned skills of the physical exam and good clinical care,” said Saul Rosenberg, MD, the Maureen Lyles D’Ambrogio Professor Emeritus in the School of Medicine. Even into his 90s, Glaser continued to attend medical grand rounds and teaching conferences, his health permitting. “He never gave up his interest in being a physician and being an investigator,” Rosenberg said.

Glaser was born and reared in St. Louis, attending public schools there. He obtained his undergraduate degree from Harvard College in 1940 and his MD, magna cum laude, from Harvard Medical School in 1943. He then returned to St. Louis to do his residency at Barnes Hospital, a teaching hospital of Washington University School of Medicine, focusing his research on streptococcal infections and rheumatic fever.

While supervising medical students, his “wandering eye fixed on an attractive young woman in the senior class,” he wrote in his Harvard 25th reunion memoir. The medical student and soon-to-be pediatrician was Helen Hofsommer, MD. She also would become Glaser’s wife.

After their marriage, the couple spent the next eight years in St. Louis. Robert Glaser moved through the ranks at Washington University, rising from instructor to associate professor to assistant dean and associate dean of the medical school. In 1956, he accepted the position of dean of medical school and vice president for medical affairs at the University of Colorado, where he spent six-and-a-half years and played an instrumental role in completing a new medical center complex.

In 1963, he was tapped to lead Affiliated Hospitals Center Inc., in Boston, an ambitious, $50 million merger of six Harvard-affiliated hospitals.

In 1965, he was hired as the dean at the Stanford School of Medicine, which was then undergoing dramatic change. The medical school had moved from San Francisco to Palo Alto, where it was building a new enterprise with a greater focus on the basic sciences.

“Though he came after the move, he was the one who shepherded the school through its formative years to get everything settled — get the molecules in motion,” said James B.D. Mark, MD, the Johnson and Johnson Professor Emeritus of Surgery, who arrived at Stanford the same year. “He was a leader at a critical time in the life of this medical school.” Mark described Glaser as someone who had “great energy, great experience, high standards and worked hard.”

Paul Berg, PhD, the Nobel Prize-winning biochemist, said Glaser was a caring person who was “easy to talk to. It was always fun to talk to him. And he was very devoted to the school.”

At the time, the hospital on campus was co-owned by the city of Palo Alto, creating redundant departments and resentments by community physicians who complained of lack of access. After protracted negotiations, Glaser helped engineer the $1 million purchase of the city’s stake in the 370-bed hospital, dramatically changing the hospital environment and teaching programs, and improving relations with community physicians.

“He was able to negotiate the deal, and everyone came out of it reasonably happy,” recalled Berg, the Robert W. and Vivian K. Cahill Professor Emeritus of Cancer Research.

Later that year, Glaser was tapped to serve as acting president of Stanford University following the retirement of J.E. Wallace Sterling. He led the university at a tumultuous time of student protests against the war in Vietnam and was lauded by students for his sensitivity and responsiveness.

At the medical school, Glaser also oversaw major changes in the curriculum to give students greater flexibility — a feature that remains a hallmark of the curriculum today.
He and his wife were generous hosts, welcoming faculty members and other guests often into their home. After working for two decades as a pediatrician, Helen Glaser completed a residency in psychiatry at Stanford, establishing a private practice and serving as an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the university.

After serving as dean for five years, Glaser left Stanford in 1970 to serve as vice president and trustee at the Commonwealth Fund, a New York-based philanthropy devoted to improving health care.

“Before he left for the Commonwealth Fund, his line was, ‘I’m going to see if it’s better to give than not to receive,’” said Mark, recalling Glaser’s dry wit.

He subsequently went on to serve as president, chief executive officer and trustee of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation from 1972 through 1983. From 1984-97, he was director for medical science and trustee of the Lucille P. Markey Charitable Trust, where he oversaw distribution of more than $500 million in support of medical science research. This included establishment of the Markey Trust Scholar Program, which supported the work of numerous postdoctoral scholars around the country, as well as some programs at Stanford.

“In the end, he did something remarkable for science through supporting postdoctoral fellows at a very critical period in their careers,” Berg said.

Glaser also had a long-term involvement with the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. Initially engaged through its research institute, in 1981 he became a founding member of its board of trustees and continued as an emeritus trustee through 2008.

A member of Alpha Omega Alpha, he served on its board of directors and as the editor from 1962-97 of its scholarly journal The Pharos, while Helen Glaser served as managing editor.

Robert Glaser also was active nationally in medical education through the Association of American Medical Colleges and served on the National Advisory Committee on Higher Education, which explored the relationship between universities and the federal government. He was a founding member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences and served on the boards of many organizations, including Washington University, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Packard Humanities Institute, the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, the Kaiser Hospitals and Health Plan, Hewlett-Packard and Alza Corp. He received many awards and honors, including the Abraham Flexner Medal for Distinguished Service to Medical Education, the Stearns Award for Lifetime Achievement in Medicine from the New York Academy of Medicine, the Dean’s Medal from Stanford School of Medicine, the Dean’s Medal from the Harvard Medical School and the Harvard Medal for Distinguished Service.

Besides his professional interests, Glaser had a lifelong passion for the commercial airline industry. Over the years, said his daughter, Sally Glaser, PhD, “He and one of my brothers would often sit out in the back yard, listening to air traffic control communications as they looked at the approaching aircraft through binoculars.” He was an avid traveler, logging more than 5 million miles in air travel for both professional and pleasure trips, including a last one to Harvard in 2010 to attend his 70th college reunion.

Glaser is survived by three children — Sally of Palo Alto; Joseph Glaser II of Nashville, Tenn.; and Robert Glaser Jr. of Colleyville, Texas — and four grandchildren. Helen Glaser died in 1999.

In lieu of flowers, the family prefers donations to either the American Philosophical Society, 104 South Fifth St., Philadelphia, PA, 19106; or the Cancer Prevention Institute of California, 2201 Walnut Ave., Suite 300, Fremont, CA, 94538.

Plans for a memorial service are pending.


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