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David J. Ramsay, a transformative figure during his 16-year presidency at University of Maryland, Baltimore, dies

Dr. David J. Ramsay, pictured in June 1998 in front of Davidge Hall, was president of University of Maryland, Baltimore from 1994 until his retirement in 2010.
Dr. David J. Ramsay, pictured in June 1998 in front of Davidge Hall, was president of University of Maryland, Baltimore from 1994 until his retirement in 2010. (AMY DAVIS)

Dr. David J. Ramsay, who during his 16-year presidency of the University of Maryland, Baltimore proved to be a transformative figure and succeeded in bringing UMB to national prominence as a research institution, died of melanoma June 19 at his home in Ross, California. The former Severna Park resident was 81.

“He was an incredibly transformative individual when it came to our campus and was very good at driving capital projects from his physical view as president,” said Jay A. Perman, who succeeded Dr. Ramsay as president of UMB in 2010.

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“David advocated for and created a great research facility, the BioPark, which become the foremost research facility in Maryland. He had convinced the city to donate land west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard for the BioPark,” said Dr. Perman, who stepped down as president last year, after being named a chancellor of the University of Maryland System.

“What he did was so profound. The university was the engine that built a bridge across a gulf to the West Baltimore community. He wanted input from the community, not just the academic institution,” he said. “David really promoted advanced research enterprise at UMB and in doing so became a force in biomedical research. That was David.”

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Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County since 1992, is another old friend and colleague.

“David was a bold old-school gentleman in the best sense of the word,” Dr. Hrabowski said. “He was an institutional researcher, a physician and an admired educator, and he took UMB’s reputation to the next level through the success of the BioPark and the relationship UMB has with West Baltimore. It is a strong partnership and he made it a reality. It was David who laid that foundation for excellence.”

Dr. David J. Ramsay, the new president of University of Maryland, Baltimore, is photographed in September 1994 in Anatomy Hall, a two-century-old lecture hall where students watch surgery being performed.
Dr. David J. Ramsay, the new president of University of Maryland, Baltimore, is photographed in September 1994 in Anatomy Hall, a two-century-old lecture hall where students watch surgery being performed. (ANDRE LAMBERTSON)

David John Ramsay, son of a senior Ford Motor Co. executive, and his wife, Connie Ramsay, an educator, was born in Hornchurch, England, and raised in Axminster, England, where he spent his World War II youth avoiding bombing raids of the Nazi Luftwaffe.

Dr. Ramsay was a graduate of the Palmers School for Boys and earned an undergraduate degree, a doctorate in physiology and a medical degree, all from Oxford University, and from 1963 to 1975, was a demonstrator, lecturer fellow and professor at Oxford.

He left Oxford and from 1974 to 1982 was a professor in the department of physiology at the University of California at San Francisco, and from 1982 to 1994 was senior vice president at UC-San Francisco.

In 1994, he came to Baltimore when he was named president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

He arrived at UMB in a time of turmoil. From 1984 to 1994, eight men had held the top job, which led The Sun at the time to observe, “Becoming the president of the University of Maryland at Baltimore lately is like marrying Henry VIII. You never know how long you’re going to last.”

Dr. Ramsay was responsible for overseeing the professional schools of dentistry, law, medicine, nursing, pharmacy and social work, which at that time had fallen into a series of fiefdoms dominated by strong personalities.

Dr. Ramsay was unfazed by what he encountered. “I love having a group of angry people come in the room with an insoluble problem and then working out a solution — or have the group work out a solution itself,” he told The Sun in a 1994 interview.

Dr. David J. Ramsay received undergraduate, doctoral and medical degrees from Oxford University, where he later worked before a long career at the University of California at San Francisco. That preceded his 16-year tenure as University of Maryland, Baltimore president. Here he's pictured at UMB in October 2005.
Dr. David J. Ramsay received undergraduate, doctoral and medical degrees from Oxford University, where he later worked before a long career at the University of California at San Francisco. That preceded his 16-year tenure as University of Maryland, Baltimore president. Here he's pictured at UMB in October 2005. (LLOYD FOX/Baltimore Sun)

“Dr. Ramsay brings a reputation for integrity and conciliation,” the newspaper said.

From his book-lined office in historic Davidge Hall on Lombard Street, Dr. Ramsay became the “driving force behind the vast expansion of UMB,” according to a university news release announcing his death. “His vision included the creation of our BioPark, bringing new therapeutics and diagnostics to the market by bringing together academic and industry biomedical researchers.”

When the BioPark, which cost $350 million, opened in 2005, Dr. Ramsay helped procure a $20 million investment from SNBL Clinical Pharmacology Center Inc., whose parent company, Shin Nippon Biomedical Laboratories Ltd. of Tokyo, established a research facility on two floors of the research center.

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Dr. Ramsay’s portfolio of UMB building construction and renovation was extensive.

In addition to the BioPark, his legacy includes the Southern Management Corporation Campus Center, the Health Sciences and Human Services Library, a School of Nursing expansion, the School of Law Nathan Patz Law Center, the Health Sciences Research Facility II, the School of Dentistry, an addition to Pharmacy Hall, the 620 West Lexington Administration Building and the Saratoga Building.

Other accomplishments included Founders Week, which he initiated with his wife, Anne, to recognize faculty, staff, students for education, research, public service and entrepreneurship. The Founders Week Entrepreneur of the Year Award has been renamed the Dr. David J. Ramsay Entrepreneur of the Year Award.

Dr. David J. Ramsay is pictured in March 2008 on groundbreaking day for the UM BioPark, a biomedical research park in Baltimore. “What he did was so profound," said Dr. Jay Perman, his successor as UMB president. "The university was the engine that built a bridge across a gulf to the West Baltimore community."
Dr. David J. Ramsay is pictured in March 2008 on groundbreaking day for the UM BioPark, a biomedical research park in Baltimore. “What he did was so profound," said Dr. Jay Perman, his successor as UMB president. "The university was the engine that built a bridge across a gulf to the West Baltimore community." (JED KIRSCHBAUM/Baltimore Sun)

After retiring from UMB in 2010, he returned to UCSF as professor emeritus in the department of neurology and was associate director of the Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases, a position he retained until his death.

Dr. Perman was an assistant professor and later associate professor of pediatrics at UCSF from 1977 to 1984. During much of time, he and Dr. Ramsay rode the bus from Marin County to work each day.

“He was an extraordinarily kind man who was very kind and welcoming to me. After all, he was a senior member of the physiology department and I was a young assistant professor,” Dr. Perman said. “And when our paths crossed at UMB, he reached out to me, and it was like we were old pals from the neighborhood.”

He added: “When I think of David, I think of a man who always had a twinkle in his eye. He was always totally focused on you, which was very British, and he was always totally down to earth.”

Dr. Ramsay was a fan of spy and murder mysteries. He was also a perennial gardener who favored daylilies, said his wife of 54 years, the former Anne Caroline Small, a retired district nurse. “He loved to putter in the garden,” she said.

Plans for a memorial service to be held in Ross are incomplete.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Sarah E. Sutton of Delmar, California; and two grandsons. He was predeceased by two sons, Anthony Charles Ramsay and Jonathan Ramsay.

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