Former Dean of School of Medicine and Dentistry Dies

June 11, 2008

James Lowell Orbison, M.D., former dean of the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry and former director of the Medical Center, died June 10 at Nottingham Village, Northumberland, Pa. He was 93.

Dr. Orbison, the medical school’s third dean, was appointed in 1967 and served as dean and director until his retirement in 1979. He led the School of Medicine and Dentistry and the Medical Center at a time of significant change. The number of medical school students in a class grew from 74 to 96 as the construction of an education wing was completed. Research facilities and programs for independent study were expanded.

During his tenure, the Medical Center developed its initial cancer center, expanded the psychiatric wing and completed construction of a new Strong Memorial Hospital, said Bradford C. Berk, M.D., Ph.D., chief executive officer of the Medical Center.

“Dr. Orbison served the School of Medicine and Rochester well in a challenging time,” Berk said. “He played a major role in long-range capital planning and led the expansion of the medical school and the hospital while maintaining the quality and the standards the students and the community deserve. We are grateful for what he accomplished and we extend our sympathies to his family.”

Dr. Orbison came to Rochester in 1955 after serving on the faculty for eight years of what was then called Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland. He had a major role in the development of a new medical curriculum there. In Rochester, he was appointed the first George Hoyt Whipple Professor of Pathology, succeeding the legendary founder of the School of Medicine and Dentistry as chairman of the department.

“From his days as a faculty member, chair of pathology and as dean, Dr. Orbison is remembered as an inspiring mentor by his students for his scientific insight, his support and his high ideals,” said David S. Guzick, dean of the School of Medicine and Dentistry. “His presided over the school at a time of rapid scientific progress as well as growth.”

Dr. Orbison, a native of Bronson, Kan., graduated from Ottawa University in Kansas, earned a master’s degree in chemistry at Michigan State University, and, in 1944, received his medical degree from Northwestern University in Chicago. He served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps from 1945 to 1947.

In research, Dr. Orbison focused on blood pressure, vascular disease and the composition of connective tissue. He served as president of the International Academy of Pathology and also secretary-treasurer and then president of the American Association of Pathologists and Bacteriologists. He received honorary Doctor of Science degrees from Ottawa University and Bucknell University, and an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Nazareth College.

“He was the best Socratic teacher that I have ever known,” said Edward D. Miller, a 1968 graduate of the School of Medicine and Dentistry who is now dean and chief executive officer of Johns Hopkins Medicine. “He would do a pathophysiology lecture and use the Socratic Method. Every student loved it because he taught you, but in such a way that treated you with respect even though you might not know the answer or explain the pathophysiology. He was very soft spoken but was strong in voice and character. He exuded the very best and anyone would like to emulate him.”

When he retired, Dr. Orbison and his wife moved to Asheville, N.C., where he served on the executive committee of the board of directors of the North Carolina Division of the American Cancer Society and the board of directors of the University of North Carolina – Asheville Botanical Gardens. He and his wife moved to Northumberland in 2004.

In 1975, when he received the Albert David Kaiser Medal from The Rochester Academy of Medicine, John Romano, M.D., then chairman of the Department of Psychiatry, said: “He is thought by many to be a modest and sober man, even shy, which he is; but he has also the strength of a gentle man and the great gift of a sense of humor.”

Dr. Orbison was an avid botanist, naturalist, and world traveler. At the School of Medicine and Dentistry, he also was known as a singer with a good tenor voice. His family described Dr. Orbison as “a loving, loyal, and selfless husband and father, a man of gentle wisdom, humility, and fairness.”

His survivors include: his wife, Olga; a daughter, Margaret Graham, and her husband, Joseph Graham, of Dansville, N.Y.; a son, James Orbison, and his wife Nancy Orbison, of Lewisburg, Pa.; three grandsons. Contributions in his memory may be made to The Botanical Gardens at Asheville, 151 W.T. Weaver, Road, Asheville, N.C. 28804.


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