Neurologists Establish Professorship in Honor of Robert J. Joynt

Apr. 28, 2009
Robert J. Joynt, M.D., Ph.D.

Colleagues and friends in the Department of Neurology at the University of Rochester Medical Center are more than halfway toward their goal of raising $1.5 million to honor the physician who founded the department.

The professorship will honor neurologist Robert J. Joynt, M.D., Ph.D., one of the most influential neurologists of the last half century, who is now Distinguished University Professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center. Joynt founded the University’s Department of Neurology in 1966 and guided the department for 18 years, laying the foundation for what is today one of the nation’s leading neurology departments.

The professorship, to be known as the Robert J. Joynt Chair in Experimental Therapeutics in Neurology, is designed to further development of treatments to treat neurological diseases. The Joynt Chair will support research to treat disorders like Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, and Alzheimer’s diseases. Friends, alumni, colleagues and grateful patients have contributed to the fund thus far.

An Iowa native, Joynt grew up in the small town of Le Mars. After serving as a radio operator in India during World War II, Joynt returned home and was mulling over career options while a student at Westmar College. The talk around the table turned to his father, a dentist, and his father’s three brothers, who were all doctors, when 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 Joynt. “I was going to medical school.”

At the University of Iowa, Joynt decided to pursue neuro-anatomy thanks to a gifted and influential teacher who brought the subject material alive for Joynt. After medical school, he trained 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 Joynt arrived in Rochester to found the Neurology Department, starting with just three neurologists. Shortly thereafter, a young student named Ira Shoulson stopped by en route to another medical school, where he intended to put down a deposit to accept that institution’s offer of medical school admission. An interview with Joynt changed those plans.

“Here was a giant in the field, taking the time to interview me and ask about my interests,” said Shoulson. “It was a very engaging interview. It’s obvious that he is not only a brilliant person, but he is such a great person, and so self-effacing,” said Shoulson. “I was really taken with him.”

Shoulson decided to attend Rochester. After graduating from medical school, he went to the National Institutes of Health to do research, and then returned to Rochester to pursue neurology and collaborate on research with Joynt. Shoulson, who is the Louis C. Lasagna Professor of Experimental Therapeutics, founded the field of experimental therapeutics in neurology, creating a new way to do research to try to find cures for diseases like Huntington’s and Parkinson’s. It’s the type of work that the new Joynt Chair is designed to enhance.

At his post in Rochester, Joynt became a giant in the field of neurology. He is one of a handful of people who has headed both the 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.

As a member of the Institute of Medicine, he is one of three Rochester neurologists – along with Shoulson and Robert “Berch” Griggs, M.D., current president of the American Academy of Neurology – who have been inducted into the institute in the past 20 years. For 17 years Joynt 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.

He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and was a member of the Board of Regents of the National Library of Medicine. He was director of the University’s original Alzheimer’s disease center and served as dean of the School of Medicine and Dentistry as well as vice president and vice provost for health affairs before returning full time to faculty work in 1994.In recent years Joynt has become widely recognized as an expert on presidential health. He co-edited Presidential Disability, a book devoted to the study of the 25th Amendment, which deals with succession in the event that the nation’s president becomes incapacitated. Joynt recalls with ease the health of U.S. presidents and its effects on the world. It’s likely that Franklin Roosevelt’s extremely high blood pressure played a role in the outcome of the talks in Yalta as World War II neared an end, for instance. The effects of a severe stroke on the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, the cancer surgery undergone in secret by President Grover Cleveland on the ship Oneida, the medical care afforded to President James Garfield during the two months before he died – such are the topics Joynt has examined.

Joynt is still teaching, sharing more than a half-century’s worth of wisdom with students and physicians in training. Since he founded the department, it has grown remarkably, with more than six dozen full-time neurologists today.

Colleague Richard Moxley, a muscular dystrophy expert who has worked alongside Joynt for 35 years, credits Joynt with possessing a congenial manner and comfort with people that has helped open the door to success for countless colleagues. His wit and readiness with a good joke are legendary, says Moxley, as is his genius.

“Not only is Bob extraordinarily intelligent, with a huge spectrum of knowledge about medicine, but he is also genuinely supportive,” says Moxley. “He took you and your family in, and you really felt like you were part of an extended family in Neurology. He’s an extremely supportive, caring person who really sets 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.

“Bob once told me, ‘I’ve never found somebody that I couldn’t like.’ He always finds something positive about a person,” said Moxley. “It’s Bob’s kind of leadership and support that Rochester needs to feel special about. He created a kind of oneness that has really shaped Rochester neurology.”

Anyone interested in contributing to the Joynt Chair should contact Shoulson at (585) 275-2585, or Steven Goldman, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chair of Neurology, at (585) 273-3079.