Dr. Richard F. Mayer, neurologist, dies

Dr. Richard Mayer
Dr. Richard Mayer (HANDOUT)

Dr. Richard Mayer, who trained generations of neurologists over nearly 50 years as a teaching physician in Baltimore, and whose pioneering research advanced testing with electromyography, known as EMG, died Tuesday after a car crash in Towson. He was 87.

Since his boyhood helping at the family butcher shop in New York state, Dr. Mayer had aspired to a career in medicine. At the time of his death, he was still teaching one day a week at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He lived at the Edenwald retirement community in Towson.


Dr. Mayer was known for maintaining a perfectly knotted bow tie while working a rigorous daily schedule.

It was his "signature dress code," said Dr. Rafael Rodriguez, his student in the 1980s. In those days, Dr. Mayer was often last to leave the hospital.


"He would get there at 5 in the morning and write his articles, then from 8 to 4 see as many patients as he could see, then stay until 9 or 10 doing his research," Dr. Rodriguez said. "I thought to myself, 'When I grow up I want to be like him.'"

Dr. Rodriguez, who now practices in Tampa, Fla., said he wears a bow tie each day to the office to pay homage to his mentor.

Dr. Mayer's daughter, Andrea Denicoff of Potomac, studied nursing at the University of Maryland in the 1980s. Once she asked to follow her father on the rounds that kept him from home so many evenings.

They met a woman who didn't understand the neurological disease afflicting her young son.

"My dad, this brainy guy, he sat and touched her hand and tried to help her understand," said Ms. Denicoff. "It made me feel at peace: 'OK, my dad might not be home much, but I know what he's doing.'"

Dr. Mayer grew up in Olean in western New York state. His parents, Francis and Rose Mayer, ran a butcher shop and encouraged their two sons to consider other careers.

"You heard it all the time that Dick was going to be a doctor and I was going to be a lawyer," said Donald Mayer, the younger brother, who now lives in The Villages, Fla. "He was only three years older than me, but he seemed much older."

Dr. Mayer graduated with honors from St. Bonaventure University in 1950 and Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1954. His training took him to leading institutions including Massachusetts General Hospital, the Mayo Clinic and the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London.

In the late 1960s, Dr. Mayer was recruited by the University of Maryland School of Medicine. There he trained young doctors and emerged as a leader in treating patients with neuromuscular disorders such as amyotrophic lateral syndrome, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, and myasthenia gravis.

After a shake-up of the university neurology department in the late 1970s, Dr. Mayer served four years as interim chief.

"He was the glue that kept things together," said Dr. Michael Sellman, chief of the neurology center at Greater Baltimore Medical Center.

Dr. Mayer discovered that electromyography testing, which reads electrical signals in muscle tissue, could detect the rare Guillain-Barre syndrome.


"Within neurological circles, he was known all over the world," said Dr. Sellman, who trained under Dr. Mayer in the 1970s. "This man was very content to be in the back of the room, just very quiet. He didn't feel any need to tell people how smart he was."

In 1959, he married Janet Bury, and they raised five children. Dr. Mayer played the cello; they regularly attended the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

He bought a house on Broad Creek outside St. Michaels in 1997. He went crabbing, collected wine and read biographies of U.S. presidents. During summers on the Eastern Shore, the family would bicycle to the Scottish Highland Creamery in nearby Oxford. Dr. Mayer preferred the strawberry, sometimes the mascarpone.

On Sundays, he would take out his 22-foot Oday sailboat — named for "cheers" in Italian — with his son, Christopher Mayer. His son lives in Cockeysville and was born developmentally disabled.

"They would just be silly together and prank each other," Ms. Denicoff said. "It would bring out this silly side of my dad that I don't know would have been there if not for Chris. It was a beautiful thing to watch."

With his wife, Dr. Mayer was a longtime supporter of The Arc Baltimore, a nonprofit assisting those with developmental disabilities.

A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Dec. 3 at The Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore. For his funeral, his sons and grandsons will wear his bow ties.

In addition to his son, daughter and brother, Dr. Mayer is survived by daughters Kathryn Mayer, of New York and Julie Mayer, of San Francisco; and son Randall Mayer, of Andover, Massachusetts. He has six grandchildren. His wife of 56 years, Janet R. Mayer, died in January.

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