Skip to main content

Cotton recalled as devoted teacher, mentor, scientist

Jan. 8, 2015, 9:07 AM

Robert B. Cotton Jr., M.D., professor of Pediatrics at Vanderbilt University and former longtime director of the Division of Neonatology, died Friday, Jan. 2. He was 74.

Robert B. Cotton Jr., M.D.

Dr. Cotton led a distinguished career at Vanderbilt where for more than four decades he served as a devoted leader, mentor and scientist, laying the foundation for groundbreaking research in infant prematurity.

He is remembered by colleagues and friends for his enthusiasm as a teacher and for his leadership in many roles, which includes his time as director of Neonatology from 1989 to 2003, a post he assumed after succeeding Mildred Stalhman, M.D., professor of Pediatrics and founder of the division and the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

Meg Rush, M.D., chief of staff and executive medical director of Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, said Dr. Cotton provided an invaluable experience when she arrived at Vanderbilt in 1984.

“As a resident, I benefited from superb teaching about tiny babies. As a fellow, I learned the importance of inquiry — both the need for and how to ask a question. Upon joining our faculty, I witnessed Bob’s tremendous commitment to the pediatric academic mission — which sometimes got him into trouble with higher levels of administration,” Rush said, with a smile.

“But what I will remember the most about Bob was his never-ending passion for growing and developing people; this was part of who he was at his core. While he contributed much to the field of neonatology over 50 years, his real contribution was mentoring and influencing the careers of those around him.”

Dr. Cotton earned his bachelor and medical degrees from the University of Virginia. He completed an internship in Pediatrics at Vanderbilt in 1966.

He demonstrated his research initiative during a tour of duty from 1968 to 1972, looking at accounts of Reyes syndrome in Indonesia. He served as a research internist for the U.S. Army Medical R&D Command, and then as chief of the Department of Medicine for the SEATO Medical Research Laboratory in Bangkok, Thailand.

In 1972, he returned to Vanderbilt as a fellow in Neonatology under Stahlman and joined the faculty in 1975, quickly rising through the ranks. During his time as chief of Neonatology, Cotton led the division through tremendous faculty and staff growth, and readied a staff that would lead a transition into the new Children’s Hospital NICU in 2004.

On the research front, Dr. Cotton co-authored more than 5 dozen publications and delivered more than 100 lectures and presentations nationally and internationally.

His pioneering research on patent duct arteriosus, a cardiac consequence of prematurity, resulted in a drug therapy for the condition in lieu of surgery for many infants.

“His important research on patent duct arteriosus and newborn lung disease placed Vanderbilt Pediatrics at the forefront of clinical investigation in premature infants and further established Neonatology as a premier program worldwide,” said Steven Webber, MBChB, MRCP, James C. Overall Professor and chair of the Department of Pediatrics. “Bob’s achievements have benefited countless number of premature infants and are accepted as standard therapy in neonatology.”

Dr. Cotton served as an inspiring mentor to several generations of Vanderbilt students, residents, fellows and faculty, many of whom who now hold distinguished careers.

“I had the unique privilege of working under Dr. Cotton’s supervision as a pediatric resident, as well as working alongside him as a neonatology colleague and research collaborator,” said Jeff Reese, M.D., associate professor of Pediatrics and Cell and Developmental Biology.

“Bob had a wonderful grasp of neonatal lung pathophysiology and was able to bring mundane aspects of pulmonary biology to life in a way that inspired trainees and fellow faculty members. He was purposeful in his focus on engaging in research that made a difference at the bedside and has been inspirational to our laboratory group.

“His guidance and encouragement will be greatly missed,” Reese said.

Dr. Cotton is survived by his sister, Barbara A. Cotton of Amherst, Virginia; his devoted wife, Anne Cotton; daughter, Elizabeth Matsui (William), and son, Scott Cotton (Thao). He is also survived by four grandchildren: Margaret Matsui, Cameron Matsui, Zoé Cotton and Adèle Cotton.

A memorial service will be held Sunday, Jan. 11, at 3 p.m., in Benton Chapel on the Vanderbilt campus with a visitation afterward. An endowed lectureship is being developed in his honor.

Recent Stories from VUMC News and Communications Publications

Keeping pace: Nashville, once a mid-size city with a Southern small-town feel, is experiencing explosive growth.

Vanderbilt Medicine

Keeping pace: Nashville, once a mid-size city with a Southern small-town feel, is experiencing explosive growth.

VUMC campus

VUMC campus

Vanderbilt University School of Medicine entrance

Vanderbilt University School of Medicine entrance

Vanderbilt University Adult Hospital with helipad

Vanderbilt University Adult Hospital with helipad

more