Beloved VUMC colleague and acclaimed scientist David Robertson mournedJan. 18, 2024, 9:06 AM
by Bill Snyder and Nancy Humphrey
David Robertson, MD, a beloved leader and mentor, and a pioneer in the clinical research of blood pressure disorders at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, died Jan. 12 at his home in Nashville. He was 76.
An emeritus professor of Medicine, Pharmacology, and Neurology, Dr. Robertson was founder and former director of the Vanderbilt Autonomic Dysfunction Center, and former director of the Vanderbilt Clinical Research Center, the Center for Space Physiology & Medicine, and the Center for Molecular Neuroscience.
He was best known internationally for his clinical research into the autonomic nervous system and how it affects circulation and blood pressure regulation.
Dr. Robertson is survived by his wife, Rose Marie Robertson, MD, adjunct professor of Medicine at Vanderbilt and chief science and medical officer of the American Heart Association, and their daughter, Rose Marie Robertson Pink.
“Dr. Robertson’s contributions to the field of autonomic disorders and to Vanderbilt were transformational, bringing worldwide attention to our institution. His acumen as a clinician scientist was unparalleled. Despite his incredible success he remained thoughtful, humble, and approachable, mentoring generations of students and residents who are following in his footsteps,” said Jeff Balser, MD, PhD, President and CEO of VUMC and Dean of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “As the Vanderbilt community mourns this loss, our thoughts are with Rose Marie and Rosie.”
Dr. Robertson and a core group of investigators formed the Vanderbilt Autonomic Dysfunction Center in 1978 to treat and study patients with orthostatic hypotension (a fall in blood pressure while standing) and other disorders of the autonomic nervous system.
Through the center Dr. Robertson and his colleagues discovered previously unrecognized disorders including dopamine beta-hydroxylase deficiency, norepinephrine transporter deficiency and baroreflex failure and developed novel treatments for these and many other autonomic disorders.
They linked a genetic defect resulting in the absence of the enzyme dopamine beta-hydroxylase, and thus of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, to very severe orthostatic hypotension, a rare condition in which those affected could only walk 20 to 40 feet at a time before having to sit down.
They went on to discover a pharmacological cure for the disorder — droxidopa, which is converted in the body to norepinephrine. This medication, one of only two drugs approved by the FDA to treat orthostatic hypotension, is now helping countless patients, said Dr. Robertson’s long-time colleague, Italo Biaggioni, MD.
Today, patients are referred from all over the world to VUMC for the diagnosis and treatment of various forms of chronic intermittent hypotension, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, and other forms of orthostatic intolerance.
“David was a remarkable person,” said Biaggioni, professor of Medicine and holder of the David Robertson, MD Professorship in Autonomic Disorders. “He was not only an extraordinarily innovative investigator, but an extremely caring physician. He trained countless individuals from all over the world with patience and kindness that inspired us. His vision led to the creation of the American Autonomic Society, which will hold its 35th annual international symposium later this year. He left a legacy we treasure and set an example that we can only hope to follow.”
Dr. Robertson grew up in the tiny rural community of Sylvia in Dickson County, Tennessee, where his family has lived for generations and where many of his relatives and close family friends still live.
He graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1969 with a BA in Germanic and Slavic Languages. He became interested in medicine during his undergraduate years, and while working in a clinical pharmacology lab and the Clinical Research Center, he helped develop an assay for renin, an enzyme that helps control blood pressure.
After graduation, Dr. Robertson continued his studies of Slavic languages, including Russian, in Denmark, before returning to Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, where he received his medical degree in 1973.
The connections he made with Russians made it possible for him to work with distinguished faculty in Moscow and fostered subsequent research in the new field of space physiology.
Dr. Robertson completed his internship and residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital and was a postdoctoral fellow in Clinical Pharmacology at VUMC for two years before accepting a position as assistant chief of Service in Medicine and instructor in Medicine at Johns Hopkins. He joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 1978.
In 1989 Dr. Robertson was named director of the Vanderbilt Clinical Research Center (CRC). Among his many accomplishments during this period was his participation in the 1998 international Neurolab space shuttle mission. Experiments designed by his team probed how the autonomic nervous system of the mission’s astronauts functioned in microgravity.
Gordon Bernard, MD, the Melinda Owen Bass Professor of Medicine and a leader of VUMC’s clinical and translational research enterprise, credited Dr. Robertson with making the CRC one of the best in the nation.
“The quality of the center has allowed for the conduct of some of the most delicate and complex human research conducted anywhere,” Bernard said.
“I have had the privilege of knowing Dr. Robertson since I was a trainee here,” said Kevin Niswender, MD, PhD, associate professor of Medicine, who succeeded Dr. Robertson as CRC director in 2017. “He was simultaneously a world-renowned clinical investigator, changing the lives of patients with autonomic dysfunction, a visionary leader of our clinical research center, an amazing mentor to so many of us, and an incredibly kind, humble and relatable person.”
In 1993 Dr. Robertson was named director of VUMC’s Medical Scientist Training Program, where for 10 years he managed the selection and support of the training of many young physician-scientists.
“David was an outstanding citizen of the Vanderbilt community,” said David G. Harrison, MD, the Betty and Jack Bailey Professor of Cardiology and director of the Division of Clinical Pharmacology.
In addition to his research, Dr. Robertson participated in dozens of institutional committees, and served as a preceptor and supervisor for numerous post-doctoral fellows, young faculty members, scholars, doctoral candidates, and medical students.
Dr. Robertson was a founding member of the American Autonomic Society and served as its first president in 1992. He also was a founding member of the Association for Patient-Oriented Research. “Dr. Robertson taught us to listen to our patients,” colleagues wrote in a remembrance posted on the association’s website.
Dr. Robertson was a recipient of Vanderbilt’s Earl Sutherland Prize, the Grant W. Liddle and William J. Darby Awards for Outstanding Contributions to Research, and the Irvine Page and Alva Bradley Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council on Hypertension of the American Heart Association.
Funeral services will be conducted at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 21, in the chapel of the Taylor Funeral Home, 214 North Main Street in Dickson. Visitation will be held from 1 p.m. Sunday until the time of the service.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Vanderbilt Autonomic Dysfunction Center here: https://vanderbilthealth.org/robertson.