Patient Care

A Pillar of Modern Neurology, Robert J. Joynt, Dies

Apr. 16, 2012
Physician also was Medical School Dean, First Chief Executive of Medical Center
Robert Joynt, M.D.

Robert J. Joynt, M.D., Ph.D., one of the most influential neurologists of the last half century and the founder of the Department of Neurology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, died April 13 at Strong Memorial Hospital. He was 86.

Calling hours will take place at Anthony’s Funeral Home, 2305 Monroe Ave., Rochester, on Tuesday from 3 to 5 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. Funeral services will be held on Wednesday at the Church of the Transfiguration, 50 W. Bloomfield Road, Pittsford, at 2 p.m., with a reception immediately following.

Dr. Joynt was a towering figure in international circles of neurology and headed both leading societies in neurology, the American Academy of Neurology and the American Neurological Association. He also served as president of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.

Beyond that, he was a beloved member of the Medical Center’s community, which he had served through several top-level posts, including dean of the School of Medicine and Dentistry.

“The first word that comes to mind when thinking of Bob is integrity,” said Jules Cohen, M.D., professor of Medicine and Medical Humanities, a good friend who enjoyed frequent meals over a span of decades with Dr. Joynt. “He was honest and straightforward, and did his job without fanfare. He was generous of spirit in his approach to everyone. He was just a totally decent human being.”

Dr. Joynt was the first individual to oversee both the academic enterprise of the School of Medicine and Dentistry as well as the patient-focused clinical enterprise that includes Strong Memorial Hospital. Under this integrated leadership model, the Medical Center has flourished and has undergone unprecedented growth.

“Bob Joynt was truly a great man. He made a fundamental difference in the way our Medical Center is led through his leadership in integrating academic medicine and clinical care,” said Joel Seligman, president of the University of Rochester. “I met him late in his life, but his charm, his dedication to his colleagues, the Medical Center and Rochester, his capacity to inspire affection in others were always evident. He will truly be missed. He was everyone’s friend here.”

Dr. Joynt’s encyclopedic knowledge of health and disease ultimately benefitted people around the globe who were treated by the thousands of physicians influenced by him. That influence was a product both of his intellect and his self-effacing, congenial personality, say colleagues.

“Bob was extraordinarily intelligent and able to make all kinds of challenging diagnoses in his patients,” said Richard T. Moxley, M.D., a long-time friend and colleague. “At the same time, he had a remarkably comfortable way dealing with people, and they embraced him, and his knowledge and insights.”

Dr. Joynt’s easy way with people, his rapier wit and readiness with a good joke were legendary. He was a popular after-dinner speaker at gatherings that would have been sedate and stiff had not Dr. Joynt put the guests in stitches, perhaps by taking a call purporting to be from President Bush or some other luminary trying to track down a neurologist being honored. And then there was Dr. Joynt – one of the nation’s leading neurologists, the man guiding thousands of medical professionals – serving up green beer in his basement on St. Patrick’s Day.

“Bob was a true renaissance man, with more knowledge on more topics than most people can imagine,” said Bradford Berk, M.D., Ph.D., CEO of the Medical Center. “Bob taught me neurology when I was a medical student, and part of the reason he was such an extraordinary teacher is because he knew how to make you laugh. Later I had the opportunity to interact with him in a discussion group called the pundit club. He was the master of American history and shared with us his insights into our presidents and politicians with his usual humor and whimsy.”

Balanced with that humor were remarkable insights, such as Dr. Joynt’s conclusion that the Medical Center could benefit from a more integrated leadership structure. Thus was born a new position – which Dr. Joynt was first to hold – that brought the academic and clinical missions of the Medical Center together.

An Iowa native, Dr. Joynt grew up in the small town of Le Mars. After serving as a radio operator tracking troop movements in India during World War II, Dr. Joynt returned home and was mulling over career options while a student at Westmar College in Le Mars. The discussion at the dinner table with his father, a dentist, and his father’s three brothers, who were all doctors, ended when Dr. Joynt’s mother called in from the kitchen, “So, what medical school will you be going to?”

“And my father responded, ‘Why, of course, the University of Iowa, where I went.’ And that pretty much settled it,” said Dr. Joynt during a 2009 interview. “I was going to medical school.”

At the University of Iowa, Dr. Joynt decided to pursue neuro-anatomy thanks to a gifted and influential teacher who brought the subject material alive for Dr. Joynt. After medical school, he interned at Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal and then studied as a Fulbright scholar at Cambridge University. Then he returned to Iowa City and earned his doctoral degree in neuro-anatomy before joining the faculty of the University of Iowa.

In 1966, Dr. Joynt was tapped to create the University’s Department of Neurology, an effort that began with three full-time neurologists. Today, the department is home to more than 25 times that number and is widely regarded as one of the top departments in the nation. Thanks in large part to Dr. Joynt’s teaching prowess, Rochester quickly became a top choice for young neurologists in training, a tradition that continues under the leadership of Ralph Jozefowicz, M.D., residency program director.

“Bob was an extremely supportive, caring person who really set the gold standard for blending the support needed for people to get their job done on a day-to-day basis, with the ability to prod them and encourage them to excel even more,” said Moxley.

Dr. Joynt’s educational efforts were recognized in 1989 when he received the Gold Medal Award from the University’s Medical Alumni Association in recognition of his “integrity, inspiring teaching and devotion to medical students.”

The same year he was honored for his teaching, Dr. Joynt was elected to the national Institute of Medicine, one of the highest honors that can be bestowed on a physician. His successor as leader of the Department of Neurology, Robert “Berch” Griggs, M.D., also is a member of the institute and credits Dr. Joynt with a heavy influence on his career.

“Bob Joynt was my role model as a chair – he set high standards and did his best to help you meet them,” said Griggs, who recently finished a two-year term as president of the American Academy of Neurology. “Somehow, talking a problem over with him often seemed to solve it. He always sought the very best for each of us.”

Dr. Joynt was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the Board of Regents of the National Library of Medicine. He also served as editor of Archives of Neurology, founded Seminars in Neurology, and is the author of the field’s major textbook, Baker and Joynt’s Clinical Neurology.

At the Medical Center, he was director of the University’s original Alzheimer’s disease center. Dr. Joynt served as dean of the medical school from 1985 to 1989, as vice provost for health affairs from 1985 to 1994, and as vice president for health affairs from 1989 to 1994, before returning full time to faculty work. In 1997, the University conferred on him the title of Distinguished University Professor, which is given to a professor who not only excels in his or her own field but has served the entire University.

In his later years Dr. Joynt became widely recognized as an expert on presidential health. In 2001, he co-edited Presidential Disability, a book devoted to the study of the 25th Amendment, which deals with succession in the nation’s leadership in the event that the president becomes incapacitated.

In recent years his colleagues led a fundraising effort to endow a professorship in his honor; last year neurologist Karl Kieburtz, M.D., was named the first Robert J. Joynt Chair in Neurology.

Beyond his service to the University, Dr. Joynt had also served on the boards of Blue Cross-Blue Shield, the United Way of Rochester, the Eastman Dental Center, Ithaca College, and the Genesee Valley Trust Company.

Dr. Joynt was still working at the Medical Center, mentoring students and colleagues alike. Last Friday, after a full work week, he died on his way to Neurology grand rounds, a weekly event he enjoyed for more than 45 years.

“Bob was a role model to so many of us in the department; he was the consummate clinician and educator, and a dear and wise friend and guide. Our world will never again be quite the same – diminished by his absence, yet so greatly enriched by his contributions and legacy,” said Steven Goldman, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Neurology.

Dr. Joynt is survived by his wife, Margaret, and their six children: Robert, Patricia, Mary, Anne, Thomas, and Kathleen, their spouses, and nine grandchildren.