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an online version of the magazine Fall 2006
Where Are They Now?

Triumph Amid the Tumult

Dr. Robert E. Cooke

A former head of the Children’s Center recalls an era of dramatic change.


One of Robert E. Cooke’s most enduring legacies arrived in the middle of a tennis game early in 1963. Cooke, director of the Department of Pediatrics here from 1956 to 1973, was playing a match with Eunice and Sargent Shriver at their suburban Washington estate when a call came from President John F. Kennedy, Mrs. Shriver’s brother. JFK wanted advice on how to improve a speech about mental health and mental retardation, key concerns of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, which Eunice Shriver headed. Cooke, the Foundation’s top medical advisor, had an idea.

In the Shrivers’ library, Cooke drafted several paragraphs proposing academically affiliated clinical and teaching facilities for the retarded. “Much to my surprise,” Cooke recalls now, “some pieces of the paragraphs appeared in the president’s message to Congress.” The resulting landmark legislation established the federally funded program that would support such facilities.

So was born the Kennedy Institute (now the Kennedy-Krieger Institute), the world-renowned institution for children with developmental problems that abuts the medical campus. Sixty similar centers followed.

Bob Cooke had personal reasons behind his passion for such youngsters. His first two daughters, born in 1948 and 1951, were severely disabled. They suffered from what later was diagnosed as cri du chat (cry of the cat) syndrome, because the infants so afflicted mewed like kittens. When Cooke and his first wife later tried to adopt a child, “we were told, in writing, that we were unfit parents because we had retarded children in our home,” he recalls. “That was a blow that I’ve never forgotten.”

But a new book published by the Department of Pediatrics, The Harriet Lane Home: A Model and a Gem, makes clear that Cooke’s areas of interest went far beyond the care of intellectually disabled children. Two chapters in the book describe his stunningly productive but sometimes controversial career as department head.

It was Cooke who oversaw pediatrics’ 1964 move out of the venerable but dilapidated Harriet Lane Home, demolished in 1974, and into the current Children’s Medical and Surgical Center. He spearheaded construction of the Edwards A. Park Building for outpatient services and the Comprehensive Child Care Center, a pioneering children’s trauma unit. And he brought out the first phenomenally successful pocket-size edition of the Harriet Lane Handbook.

Cooke “was ahead of the curve, particularly on the issue of how handicapped people should be treated and their lives valued,” says Lawrence Wissow (HS, pediatrics, 1979–82), now on the Hopkins faculty. In 2004, the American Academy of Pediatrics gave Cooke its top bioethics honor, the Bartholome Award, named for the late William Bartholome, who had been one of Cooke’s residents.

But Cooke’s accomplishmments could involve bruising battles. “He was a very assertive man who had strong ideas,” recalls pediatrician Henry Seidel ’46, who was dean of student affairs from 1977 to 1990. “And he didn’t always cross paths harmoniously with people.”

Cooke, now 86 and living in Vero Beach, Fla., acknowledges that his 17 years at Hopkins entailed confrontations, particularly with then-Hospital president Russell Nelson. “I felt my responsibility was to make sure that children got a fair break,” he says. But Cooke has far more positive than negative memories of his Hopkins days. “I thought it was one of the greatest places in the world. I still do. I had wonderful people to work with.”   
And many of those people went places. Saul Brusilow (fellow, pediatrics, 1956–57), now professor emeritus of pediatrics, says Cooke was mentor to “a generation of leaders in American pediatrics.” Introducing Cooke at the 1991 ceremony where he received the Howland Award—the American Pediatric Society’s highest accolade—Brusilow calculated that 104 of Cooke’s house officers had entered academic medicine, 80 had become professors and 22 later chaired departments.

“To say that Bob’s tenure here was without conflict would be a mistake,” Seidel says, “but it would be wrong to let it dim the view of what he accomplished.”

Although his proposed appointment as dean of the School of Medicine was blocked by Nelson, Cooke remained at Hopkins until recruited by the University of Wisconsin to become its vice chancellor for health sciences. After four years there, he served briefly as president of the Medical College of Pennsylvania before becoming pediatrician in chief at Children’s Hospital in Buffalo in 1980. He retired to Vero Beach in 1989.

Among all the remarkable events in this renowned pediatrician’s life, two events from his early 60s have given him the greatest personal satisfaction. During a time that some might consider their sunset years, Cooke found joy again in parenthood. Following two divorces, he married Sharon Riley, a former University of Wisconsin colleague, in 1980 and became a father again soon thereafter. He proudly recounts the athletic and academic accomplishments of his daughters, Susie—a Yale swimming star who recently graduated from Georgetown University’s law school—and Annie, captain of Wisconsin’s water polo team, now headed to the University of Maryland journalism school.

“It’s been wonderful,” he says. “The girls have been a true blessing. I don’t think there’s any question that this has been the very best part of my life.”star

Neil A. Grauer

 The Making of a Phenom
 Leaky Labs
 The Secret Life of Curt Civin
 Circling the Dome
 Medical Rounds
 Annals of Hopkins
Class Notes
 Triumph Amid the Tumult
 Learning Curve
Johns Hopkins Medicine

© The Johns Hopkins University 2006