Dr. Robert E. Cooke, a retired Johns Hopkins pediatrician-in-chief who was a founder of the Head Start children's program and a presidential medical adviser, died of heart disease Feb. 2 at his Oak Bluffs home on Martha's Vineyard, Mass. The former North Roland Park resident was 93.
"We have lost a true visionary, whose acumen, passion and dedication have influenced generations of pediatricians and changed the lives of millions of children," said Dr. Paul B. Rothman, dean of the medical faculty and chief executive officer of Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Born in Attleboro, Mass., he earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Yale University and played for its baseball team. He had a tryout with the Boston Red Sox, but instead went on to earn a degree from the Yale School of Medicine. He moved to Baltimore in 1956 when he joined the Hopkins faculty as director of the department of pediatrics and director of the Hopkins Children's Center.
Dr. Cooke had a lengthy association with Eunice Kennedy Shriver, President John F. Kennedy's sister, who was married to Peace Corps director R. Sargent Shriver. Mrs. Shriver became a champion for children with disabilities — she was a Special Olympics founder —- and counted Dr. Cooke as a close adviser. He was the personal pediatrician to her children.
Dr. Cooke had two daughters with cri du chat syndrome, a genetic disorder marked by delayed development and intellectual disability. He worked to overcome barriers to the disabled and spoke out for medical ethics. Over the years, Dr. Cooke worked closely with the Kennedys, the Shrivers and later with President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Colleagues at Hopkins said he was an early advocate for those with mental disabilities and his friendships with the Kennedys gave him a means of shaping public health policy.
When Sargent Shriver headed the Johnson administration's War on Poverty, Dr. Cooke's advice and recommendations were used to create the Head Start program, which helps the development of low-income children.
"Dr. Cooke helped bring university health centers out of the ivory tower and into the community they serve," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy said at a banquet for Dr. Cooke at Martin's West in 1973.
Dr. Cooke served on President Kennedy's transition team. In early 1961, The Baltimore Sun reported on Dr. Cooke's work with Dr. Wilbur Cohen, who was called an architect of Medicare. Dr. Cooke and others crammed into a room at Washington's Mayflower Hotel and wrote a draft policy statement recommending a federal expansion of medical care for the recently elected John Kennedy.
Dr. Cooke was later named to a White House panel that made recommendations on the developmentally disabled.
A statement from Hopkins said he would be "remembered as an intensely charismatic leader and a brilliant physician-scientist by generations of students and colleagues." He was also called "a prolific academician and bioethicist, but also an ardent and tough advocate for child health and a political power broker who shaped child health policy on a national scale."
In 1965, Dr. Cooke co-authored a textbook, "The Biosocial Basis of Mental Retardation."
At Hopkins, Dr. Cooke oversaw the children's hospital move from its original Harriet Lane Home to the Children's Medical and Surgical Center.
"He was a dynamic and charismatic leader," said Dr. Jerry Winkelstein, the former director of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center. "He met and spoke with his interns and residents and inquired about their careers. He knew their backgrounds, their dreams, hopes and aspirations."
Dr. Winkelstein recalled the Monday after the weekend 1968 riots in Baltimore, where he and Dr. Cooke were on duty at Hopkins.
"There had been fires all around Hopkins and Bob called in the senior residents. He said, 'We got to get better connected with our neighbors,'" Dr. Winkelstein said. "He proposed opening the swimming pool in the old residents' compound every day until noon for the neighborhood children. We all endorsed it."
Dr. Cooke became vice chancellor for health sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1973. In 1977, he became president of the Medical College of Pennsylvania and, later, the pediatrician-in-chief at Buffalo Children's Hospital. He retired in 1989.
"He was able to change with the times," said his wife, the former Sharon Riley. "The time he spent in Baltimore was a special part of his life. It was a good time in medicine and personally fulfilling to him."
Survivors include his wife of 35 years; two sons, W. Robert Cooke of Miami and Christopher Cooke of Daytona, Fla.; three daughters, Susan Cooke Anderson of Boston, Anne Cooke Ennis of Oak Bluff, Mass., and Kim Cooke Himmelfarb of West Hartford, Conn.; and two granddaughters. A daughter, Robyn Cooke, died in 1967. Another daughter, Wendy Cooke, died in 2005. His two earlier marriages ended in divorce.
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