Retired Stanford professor Edward Rubenstein, pioneer in intensive care medicine, dies at 94

Edward Rubenstein was an internist, an educator and an investigator of varied research topics, including synchrotron medical imaging.

- By Mandy Erickson

Edward Rubenstein

Edward Rubenstein, MD, professor emeritus of primary care and population health at the Stanford University School of Medicine and the author of an early textbook on intensive care medicine, died March 11 of natural causes. He was 94. 

Described by many as a Renaissance man, Rubenstein researched treatments for sickle cell anemia, developed a diagnostic imaging system using synchrotron radiation, explored the role of cerebrospinal fluid in age-related mental disorders, and studied a possible link between dietary nonprotein amino acids and disease. He was also a founding editor of Scientific American Medicine.

In the 1970s, Rubenstein wrote and produced a documentary, Being Human, on the characteristics that make us unique among species. It features Nobel laureate Linus Pauling, PhD, and jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, among other scientists and artists. 

“Ed was a one-person transdisciplinary research project because he had such broad knowledge,” said Kevin Grimes, MD, professor of chemical and systems biology at the School of Medicine who was working with Rubenstein on the role of nonprotein amino acids in multiple sclerosis. “He could talk to you about the importance of the size of the sun and how that affects cobalt’s being on the planet.”   

Rubenstein’s son John said his father was perhaps most proud of his work on synchrotron radiation, which is used in research and diagnosis. “That’s probably what he would say is his biggest research success,” John Rubenstein said.

Native of Cincinnati

Born in Cincinnati on Dec. 5, 1924, Rubenstein was inspired to become a physician by his own pediatrician, who cared for him when his family feared he had contracted polio. The son of a state assemblyman, he attended the University of Cincinnati as an undergraduate, graduated from its College of Medicine in 1947 and was a resident at Cincinnati General Hospital and Barnes Hospital at Washington University in Saint Louis. 

When the Korean War started, he learned that doctors were in short supply in the military and enlisted. From 1950 to 1952, he was head of medicine at March Air Force Base in Riverside County, California. 

Rubenstein briefly returned to the Midwest to join the faculty at the University of Cincinnati, then headed back to California, where he started a medical practice in San Mateo. He joined Stanford in 1955 as a clinical instructor at San Mateo County General Hospital. He became a clinical professor in 1960, and was named associate dean for postgraduate medical education in 1972. He retired in 1993 but remained actively engaged in research. The Department of Medicine holds an annual lecture named for him.

“Physician-scientists like Dr. Rubenstein are at the heart of Stanford Medicine, and we have benefited greatly from his contributions in research and in training scores of future physicians,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. 

“I had the pleasure of getting to know him during the Rubenstein Lectureships and recognize the breadth of his interests, from small molecules to clinical observations,” said Abraham Verghese, MD, professor of medicine at Stanford and the Linda R. Meier and Joan F. Lane Provostial Professor. “He was interested in the individual, their place in society, disease, epidemiology, the molecular structure of the cell — it was all medicine. I only wish I had been one of his trainees.”

Rubenstein was a member of the National Academy of Medicine. He won several Stanford awards, including the Albion Hewlett Award and the Kaiser Award for Innovation and Outstanding Contributions to Medical Education. 

He is survived by his wife, Nancy, of Hillsborough; sons John and James, both UCSF physicians, and William, an educator and writer in Los Angeles; and two grandchildren: Tess, a nurse practitioner at the San Francisco Veterans Administration Health Care System, and Thomas, a musician and composer.

The family is planning a memorial service.

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2023 ISSUE 2

How the environment and health interact