February 3, 2006

Vanderbilt mourns loss of Robert Merrill, M.D.

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Robert Merrill, M.D., as a faculty member on the polio ward at Vanderbilt, circa 1960.

Vanderbilt mourns loss of Robert Merrill, M.D.

An outstanding writer and teacher, Vanderbilt alumnus Robert Merrill, M.D., died Jan. 11 in Salado, Texas, at age 80 due to complications from acute leukemia.

He earned his B.S. from Tulane University from 1943-46 and his M.D. from Vanderbilt from 1946-49. Dr. Merrill completed his postgraduate training and fellowship appointments at Vanderbilt from 1949-1955 and became an instructor in Pediatrics in 1957.

He rose to associate professor of Pediatrics before leaving in 1966 to accept a position at the University of Virginia devoted to rehabilitation.

He subsequently held appointments in several pediatric departments before accepting a position as associate editor of the Journal of Pediatrics in 1977.

But his allegiances were to Vanderbilt, as evidenced in his autobiographical memoir Vanderbilt Memories, available in the Eskind Library's Historical Collection.

“When our time was up, we were educated, not trained,” he wrote. “Depending on our individual inclinations, we were ready to embark on any number of careers, and did, with remarkable success.”

“Comparatively at least, I became a good clinician, a fair administrator and a superior teacher. I doubt that I could have accomplished any of this had I not had the luck to start at Vanderbilt,” he wrote.

He won numerous teaching awards for work in the pediatric departments of universities including Virginia, Arkansas, Texas Tech, Southern Illinois and Pennsylvania.

At Vanderbilt, Dr. Merrill was the third recipient of the Shovel Award as an instructor, although the two previous recipients were full professors.

Dr. Merrill's friends and colleagues remember his wonderful sense of humor, total commitment to quality and his honesty, “to the point of occasionally offending those who can never say anything straight.”

"Dr. Merrill loved history, especially his time training here at Vanderbilt with Amos Christie. He very much enjoyed telling humorous stories of past experiences,” said Arnold Strauss, M.D., chair of Pediatrics and medical director of the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt.

“But, Dr. Merrill was steadfast in espousing excellence, whether in teaching or writing, and was dedicated to children. He was a wonderful citizen of Vanderbilt.”

Born Aug. 21, 1925, in Johnstown, Pa., Dr. Merrill married Patricia MacDonald in 1949. They had four children — Susan, Nancy, Kathleen and Forrest — and six grandchildren. Throughout his career, his spouse and helpmate supported him until her death in 2000.

The Merrills kept close ties to Vanderbilt faculty and friends over the years and shared their appreciation for traveling and hiking, particularly in the Sewanee region of the Cumberland Mountains.

“Bob and Patricia were interesting travelers; they took a freight steamer to Australia instead of the Queen Mary, in part to avoid dressing up at night,” said Mildred Stahlman, M.D., professor of Pediatrics.

“He was a superb editor but I think his major medical contribution was to medical students and residents as a teacher … you had to be good to enjoy him and you had to be good for him to enjoy you.”

Robert Collins, M.D., John L. Shapiro professor of Pathology, said Dr. Merrill excelled in his position as associate editor of the Journal of Pediatrics from 1977-1990.

“He did his best to bring a bit of humor and relevancy, as well as accuracy in spelling and syntax, to an exacting and essential task,” Collins said.

“Of course he had had a lot of experience, freely correcting (without invitation) the clinical notes of fellow students and house officers.”

Dr. Merrill's bibliography includes numerous published papers and several books, including two titles currently in press and due out this spring “Amos Christie, MD: The Legacy of a Lineman,” which he wrote about his Vanderbilt mentor, and “Onward and Upward: Vanderbilt University Medical Center 1981-1997,” a book he edited for former Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs Roscoe R. “Ike” Robinson, M.D.

A memorial service for Dr. Merrill will be held in Sewanee in mid spring.