Dr. Richard Ross, former Hopkins medical school dean and cardiologist, dies

Dr. Richard Ross, ex-Hopkins medical school dean who presided over growth of research and facilities, died.

Dr. Richard S. Ross, an internationally known cardiologist who was dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and vice president for medicine at the Johns Hopkins University, died Tuesday of complications of Parkinson's disease at his home in Roland Park Place.

He was 91.

"Dick Ross was a true Hopkins legend. His leadership skills, savvy and judgment really contributed to the medical school greatness," said Dr. Myron "Mike" Weisfeldt, a cardiologist and former director of Johns Hopkins' Department of Medicine and a onetime president of the American Heart Association.

"He grew up in the tradition he then led. He went from cardiology chief to dean in a one-step advancement — quite an achievement in and of itself," said Dr. Weisfeldt. "His great characteristics were integrity and commitment. There were enough of both to infect all around him."

Dr. Ross succeeded Dr. Russell H. Morgan when he was named medical school dean in 1975 and served until 1990, becoming one of the longest-serving deans of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Dr. Edward Miller was named dean in 1997 and also served in the position for 15 years.

During his tenure, the medical school doubled its research space and consistently was one of the nation's top recipients of federal research funding.

He also launched educational reforms and initiatives that continued to bring to Hopkins top-notch applicants while emphasizing diversity in the medical school.

The son of Dr. Louis F. Ross, a physician, and Margaret Grubbs Starr Ross, a Vassar College graduate, Richard Starr Ross was born and raised in Richmond, Ind., where his father was superintendent of the Eastern Indiana Hospital for the Insane.

Dr. Ross was fond of saying, "I often tell people I was born and raised in an insane asylum. Many people hear this with great interest."

After graduating from Richmond High School, Dr. Ross began his studies at Harvard in 1942, and because of the accelerated academic program during World War II, he entered Harvard Medical School without finishing his undergraduate degree.

He was a 1947 cum laude graduate of the medical school and then came to Baltimore, where he planned to spend a year on the Osler Medical Service at Hopkins as an intern and then return to Boston.

In a 1974 interview with The Baltimore Sun, he said, "I fell in love with this place."

After completing one year of his residency at Hopkins, Dr. Ross joined the Army Medical Corps and served as a captain and chief of cardiovascular medicine with the 141st General Hospital in the Far East during the Korean War.

He returned to Hopkins in 1951 and after completing a second year of medical residency, went to Harvard, where he was a fellow in physiology from 1952 to 1953, when he again returned to Hopkins as chief medical resident.

Dr. Ross became associated with Dr. Helen Taussig, the legendary pediatric cardiologist, who along with the surgeon Dr. Alfred Blalock and laboratory technician Vivien Thomas perfected the "blue baby" operation that established the field of cardiac surgery.

Along with Dr. Taussig, he cared for adults with congenital heart disease who were coming from all across the world because of her renown. He also joined her in studying pulmonary hypertension in the young patents who had undergone the "blue baby" operation.

"Those were exciting times," Dr. Ross said in a 1990 interview. "I was fascinated by the physiology; it still turns me on. I enjoyed understanding it, explaining it, participating in it. It was a shining era."

Beginning his research in 1960, he developed and introduced an X-ray movie technique — coronary cineangiography — for diagnosing and studying methods to treat coronary artery and vascular heart disease. This technique has resulted in making it possible for cardiologists to obtain precise information on the structure of the heart arteries in living people.

He became a staunch advocate of preventive medicine in forestalling heart disease. He urged physicians to counsel their patients in the three risk factors associated with heart disease: hypertension, cigarette smoking and high cholesterol levels.

Dr. Ross moved through the school's academic ranks, achieving directorship of the cardiology division at Hopkins in 1961, head of its Wellcome Research Laboratory and full professorship in the medical school in 1965. He was named the Clayton Professor of Cardiovascular Disease in 1969.

He served as president of the American Heart Association from 1973 to 1974.

Dr. Ross' expertise in cardiology was such that in 1974, he was one of three physicians asked by Judge John Sirica, chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Washington, to examine former President Richard M. Nixon at his home in San Clemente, Calif., to see if he was fit enough to testify at the Watergate hearings. They unanimously concluded that the former president was too ill to travel to Washington.

Also that year, while serving as president of the of the heart association, Dr. Ross garnered national attention when he challenged ads that were published in 1974 by the National Commission on Egg Nutrition that featured "The Sexy Egg."

The ads said the human body cannot manufacture hormones without cholesterol and added: "There is absolutely no scientific evidence whatsoever that eating eggs in anyway increases the risk of heart attack."

"I felt as president of the American Heart Association, I couldn't let them get away with that," Dr. Ross said in the 1974 interview with The Sun. "We didn't win. But the point is we didn't them get away with it without a fight."

"At the time, medicine believed eggs were not good for your health, but we now know that's not the case," said Dr. Weisfeldt. "The egg industry was big and they were saying that eggs enhanced sexual performance, which he did not believe. I think that was Dick's only public quarrel."

He was also instrumental in organizing a multicenter, prospective, randomized trial to evaluate the use of coronary bypass surgery for emergency treatment of unstable angina pectoris.

In 1977, Dr. Ross told the Senate Human Resources Health subcommittee that bypasses, the most frequently performed heart surgery in the country, are done "on the mistaken assumption" that patients will be less likely to have a heart attack or die suddenly, he told The Washington Post at the time.

He said that strong economic pressure helped explain the "explosive growth" in use of the procedure. "We are dealing with a multimillion-dollar enterprise which is very hard to turn off," he told The Post.

As dean of the medical school, Dr. Ross' accomplishments were numerous. He believed in what he called the "synergistic triangle," the confluence of teaching, research and patient care.

During his tenure until stepping down as dean in 1990, Hopkins went from seventh to first in the National Institutes of Health research funding and from $20 million in clinical funding to more than $100 million.

He oversaw the endowment of 29 professorships for senior faculty and created a $5 million fund that is known as the Richard Starr Ross Fund for Physician Scientists to help young Hopkins physicians who were beginning their research.

It was Dr. Ross who led the way in eliminating the Medical College Admissions Testing requirement for applicants to the medical school, and approving a FlexMed program with greater study options and expanding the enrollment of minorities.

"We strongly believe that a broad general education, humanism and the properties of personality and character make people good physicians," Dr. Ross told The Sun in 1985.

As dean, he opposed a federal government effort that compelled U.S. schools to admit unqualified third-year medical students who had received their training overseas.

Major construction projects included a 10-story, 22 laboratory building on Rutland Avenue that is named the Richard Starr Davis Ross Research Building; a new Hunterian Laboratory for Surgical and Pathological Research for experiments, the Asthma Allergy Center on the Hopkins Bayview Medical campus, and the Denton A. Cooley Fitness and Recreation Center for students and faculty.

An avuncular figure of medium height with a head of closely cropped hair, Dr. Ross' face was highlighted by a pair of horned-rimmed glasses that gave him something of an owlish and strait-laced appearance.

He was remembered by colleagues for his puckish sense of humor and one of his favorite sayings: "Proud turkey today, feather duster tomorrow."

Dr. Ross was a memorable mentor to the hundreds of medical students who passed through Hopkins, said Dr. Weisfeldt. Among the many things he taught was when giving a talk, "Tell them what you're going to say and then tell them what you just told them," and "only put 10 words on slides," said Dr. Weisfeldt.

He wrote widely on cardiovascular physiology and disease and was editor of modern editions of "The Principles and Practice of Medicine," originally written by Dr. William Osler, Hopkins' first physician-in-chief.

Dr. Ross, who had lived on Wendover Road in Guilford and Drohomer Place in North Roland Park, enjoyed sailing, photography and golf, and was a member of the Elkridge Club.

Funeral services for Dr. Ross will be held at 4 p.m. Aug. 24 the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, 5603 N. Charles St.

He is survived by his wife of 65 years, the former Elizabeth "Boo" McCracken; a son, Richard McC. Ross of Jarrettsville; two daughters, Deborah R. Chambliss of Baltimore and Margaret C. Ross of Oak Park, Ill.; and five grandchildren.

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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