He was the second African-American resident at Akron Children’s Hospital. He founded Children’s genetics center in 1977. He was also instrumental in establishing the fetal treatment center, which focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of birth defects before delivery.
To honor his myriad achievements, the geneticist and co-director of the fetal treatment center recently received a Summit Award from the Summit County Historical Society as well as the Distinguished Service Award from Akron Children’s Hospital.
I had the privilege of sitting down with Dr. Robinson to talk about his esteemed career. Read the Q & A below to learn more about his interests and what drives him.
Me: You’ve been with Akron Children’s quite a while now. Take me back to when you started – what brought you to the hospital?
Dr. Robinson: For most of my life, I lived here in Akron. My mother worked in laundry here at the hospital during the polio epidemic. I went to medical school at a time of transition when most black med students went to historically black universities. Even though they were good schools, they had a stigma. So I applied only to mixed schools, and I went to Ohio State. That stigma persisted, though, and often blacks had trouble getting internships. I applied here in 1962, and got in. I was interested in scientific fields, but for the sake of my family decided on a shorter residency in pediatrics. I was the second black resident at Children’s. So I spent my first year here in pediatrics, but was inspired, partially by Dr. Margaret Baker [chief of pathology], to go into pathology.
Me: Why genetics? What did you find compelling about the field?
Dr. Robinson: In the mid ‘60s, the genetics field was developing behind the scenes. There wasn’t anything that seemed relevant to clinicians. At that time, I was serving as an assistant professor of pediatrics and pathology at Buffalo Children’s. While I was there, so was Robert Guthrie, the physician microbiologist who developed the test to screen for phenylketonuria (PKU). This turned out to be one of the most important tests in medical science – it became the basis for all newborn screening. Later, when I was back in Akron in the mid-‘70s, Ohio decided to support the development of genetic centers.
Me: Was that the beginning of the Genetics Center?
Dr. Robinson: I was in charge of the genetics lab at that time. Amniocentesis had become possible, and Dr. Justin Lavin and I started offering it to patients through Maternal-Fetal Medicine. There were very few patients who decided to terminate a pregnancy, but when they did I felt it was critical to confirm that the diagnosis had been correct. So that was the beginning of the fetal pathology program. Because of my interest in that, Dr. Gary Benfield (retired neonatologist) thought I would be valuable in helping families understand the loss of a child by providing genetic information. I established the genetic clinic with no office – we just started seeing patients. We got a grant and hired our first genetic counselor, and she and I got a little closet in the basement to work out of.
Me: It’s interesting to see how your path unfolded over time.
Dr. Robinson: You never really know where you’re going – you just end up in these odd places sometimes. In 1990, I was recruited to start a genetics program in Toledo. While I was there, the Toledo Museum of Art asked me to help them with some mummies they had been storing for about 70 years. So we developed a program to study the genetics of these mummies, and determined their genders and that they lived 2,000 years ago, among other things. That was such an interesting project we made a movie about it. Another time, the Toledo Zoo came to me about a gorilla. They had a neurologist, cardiologist, physical therapist and others helping, but they needed someone to perform an autopsy on this gorilla that had cerebral palsy. You’re just pushed in these directions.
Me: What sparked your interest in science?
HR: I’ve been curious about science from the time I was a kid with chemistry sets. From there, it just developed incrementally. You see something you want to learn, and then you want to learn more.
Me: What is your greatest career accomplishment?
Dr. Robinson: I contributed to the founding of the Fetal Treatment Center. For parents who feel the outlook for their child has been severely compromised, we reassure them that it is not as compromised as they might think, and we are able to implement a treatment plan to make that outlook not so compromised after all.
Me: Where is the field of genetics headed?
Dr. Robinson: Right now, we are beginning to understand disease and the disease process on a molecular level. In the future, I think we will learn how to intervene and alter the course of a disease. I don’t think we will ever understand everything, but we will understand a lot more.
Me: What advice do you have for physicians just starting out?
Dr. Robinson: I find it hard to give others advice. Some have the attitude that once they are done with their training, they are finished. But it’s a continual process of learning and relearning in my experience. My other piece of advice is that honesty is the only way to go – try to tell your patients honestly what you know and what you don’t know.