Dr. Robert W. Gibson, head of Sheppard Pratt

Dr. Robert Gibson
Dr. Robert Gibson

Dr. Robert W. Gibson, a seminal figure for more than three decades at the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital where he oversaw the desegregation of its facilities, ended its bankruptcy and extended it into the community, died March 8 of heart failure at his Parkton home. He was 89.

"Bob was a major leader in American psychiatry and not just at Sheppard Pratt or in Maryland. He devoted his life to Sheppard Pratt for more than 30 years and was really a remarkable leader," said Dr. Steve Sharfstein who succeeded Dr. Gibson in 1992 as president of what is now Sheppard Pratt Health System.


"He was also a leader when it came to the issue of financing psychiatric care. Sheppard Pratt thrived under Bob, and he really kept the place solvent and moving ahead as a leading psychiatric hospital in the country," said Dr. Sharfstein, who met Dr. Gibson when he was completing his residency in psychiatry. I felt an immediate affinity for him and he was very much my mentor."

Robert Wagner Gibson was born and raised in Lansdowne, Pa., graduating in 1942 from Lansdowne High School.


Dr. Gibson's father was Walter B. Gibson, the noted American pulp writer and magician who was the creator of "The Shadow," one of the most popular radio shows in history. His mother was Charlotte Wagner Gibson, a homemaker.

He attended Lafayette College and entered the Navy's V-12 program at Swarthmore College. After graduation, he entered the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, from which he earned his medical degree in 1948.

After completing an internship in 1948 at Bryn Mawr Hospital in Bryn Mawr, Pa., Dr. Gibson completed residencies in psychiatry at Bethesda Naval Hospital from 1949 to 1952. In 1960, he graduated from the Washington Psychoanalytical Institute as a training psychoanalyst.

From 1952 to 1960, he was a staff psychiatrist at Chestnut Lodge, a Rockville psychiatric institution, before coming to Sheppard Pratt as clinical director in 1960. In 1963, Dr. Gibson was named medical director, the title in those days of the Towson hospital's chief executive officer or president. It wasn't long before he made his influence felt.

He was labeled in a 1991 Baltimore Sun article as "The Man Who Shook Up Sheppard Pratt." He recalled in the article that upon his arrival, the hospital "just seemed to be going no place" and that it was stagnant and lacked vision and direction.

Dr. Gibson recalled his first board meeting, during which he had to persuade members to broaden the hospital's mission and not to sell the facility.

"And so," he recalled, "I said to the board at that first meeting, 'The greatest mistake we could make is to think we were in the business of running a psychiatric hospital.' I still remember the look of despair on their faces. It was as if to say, 'What have we done? Where did we get this idiot?'"

Among the initial crises he had to deal with was Sheppard Pratt's bankruptcy, which he resolved by increasing the daily rate for patients from $20 to $25 per day, said his wife of 32 years, the former Diane Underwood, who was director of rehabilitation services at Sheppard Pratt.

"Suddenly, we went from the red to the black," Dr. Sharfstein said.

Dr. Gibson then turned to desegregating the hospital for both staff and patients before the passage of the 1964 civil rights laws that outlawed segregation.

"He started having lunch with the black staff and then everybody got the idea, which made for more interaction," Dr. Sharfstein said.

"For it was largely the vision of Dr. Gibson that transformed Sheppard from a 19th-century-style asylum into a 21st-century comprehensive psychiatric hospital, nationally known and locally appreciated," observed The Sun in the 1991 article.


Changes came rapidly and often, with some resistance from an entrenched staff used to doing things the old way.

He terminated the practice of custodial care and the warehousing of longtime patients. He got Sheppard Pratt involved in Employee Assistance Programs and established an adolescent unit that features an accredited school for students.

In 1965, he established the first public community mental health center in the nation sponsored by a private psychiatric hospital.

"It became a model of community health care," Dr. Sharfstein said.

Another of Dr. Gibson's important actions was leading the expansion of the hospital's role beyond its 105-acre campus along Charles Street and Towsontown Boulevard. The campus was once surrounded by a white fence and considered a place where outsiders did not intrude.

"If you look at the way things operated here, even in 1960," Dr. Gibson said in the 1991 interview, "it was more like an asylum than a hospital. It was a protection, a closed community. I said, 'Why not have a volunteer department?' They said, 'Oh, that would bring in outsiders.' I said, 'Why not have outpatients?' They said, 'Oh, then you would have people coming from the community.'"

Dr. Gibson introduced psychotropic drugs in 1965 for the treatment of patients while at the same time studying the hazards of such drugs as reserpine, trofranil and chlorpromazine.

Between 1964 and 1970, he led the modernization of the hospital's buildings, many of which dated to the Victorian era. Dr. Gibson also saw the need for a conference center, which was built on the grounds of Sheppard Pratt.

Dr. Gibson, who retired at the end of 1991, had been president of many professional organizations, including the American Psychiatric Association, the National Association for Private Psychiatric Hospitals and the Central Neuropsychiatric Hospital Association.

During retirement, he became an active volunteer at Sheppard Pratt.

Dr. Gibson was a long-distance hiker and enjoyed kayaking, photography and playing golf at Pine Ridge.

Plans for a memorial service at Sheppard Pratt are incomplete.

In addition to his wife, Dr. Gibson is survived by two sons, Robert W. Gibson Jr. of Lutherville and Christopher Gibson of Randallstown; a daughter, Peggy Gibson of Lutherville; a stepson, Eric Stine of Collegeville, Pa.; three stepdaughters, Ruth Stine of Havre de Grace, Carolyn Stine of Hershey, Pa., and Sherrie Stine of Delta, Pa.; and 14 grandchildren. An earlier marriage to the former Gwendolyn Locke ended in divorce.

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