Duke Flags Lowered: Former Neurosurgery Chief Robert Wilkins Dies

The late Dr. Robert Wilkins was a key figure in the rise of Duke neurosurgery.
The late Dr. Robert Wilkins was a key figure in the rise of Duke neurosurgery.

Dr. Robert H. Wilkins, 82, emeritus professor of neurosurgery and former division chief of Duke Neurosurgery, died on Friday, March 31, at Duke University Hospital.

Wilkins devoted his career in neurosurgery both to teaching advanced surgical techniques and to the continual improvement, advancement and dissemination of scholarship within the field.

Among his most significant professional contributions was establishing Neurosurgery, the professional journal of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons. He and his wife, Gloria, launched it in 1977, publishing it out of their home; Wilkins serving as its editor in chief until 1982.

"He was internationally known for his scholarly writings, as the editor of the journal 'Neurosurgery', and as the editor of multiple neurosurgical textbooks.  He and his wife Gloria worked long hours to perfect everything Dr. Wilkins published.  He had very high standards, and expected no less from his residents.”said Dr. Allan Friedman, professor of neurosurgery at Duke. “But most of all, I’ll remember his kindness. He was a true gentleman, very refined. He always had great stories to share and great jokes to tell. I will honestly miss him.”

Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Wilkins earned both his Bachelor of Science (1955) and Medical Degree (1959) from the University of Pittsburgh. He completed several student fellowships, including one in 1956 under Dr. Jonas Salk with the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, now known as the March of Dimes.

In 1959, he and his wife Gloria moved to Durham to pursue his internship and residency in surgery at Duke. During the Vietnam War, they left Duke briefly so that he could serve as a senior assistant surgeon at the Surgery Branch of the National Cancer Institute as part of the U.S. Public Health Service. They returned to Duke in 1963 for his neurosurgical residency. Upon completion in 1968, he joined the Duke faculty as assistant professor of neurosurgery as well as chief of neurosurgery at the Durham Veterans Affairs Hospital.

They left Duke in 1972 when Wilkins was recruited to Texas. There, he worked in a number of capacities including chair of the department of neurosurgery at the Scott & White Clinic in the city of Temple; clinical assistant professor of neurosurgery with the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, and clinical instructor at Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. He was recruited back to Pittsburgh as an associate professor of neurosurgery at the University of Pittsburgh in 1975, serving there for one year until returning to Duke as professor of neurosurgery and chief of the Division of Neurosurgery, a position he held until 1996. He retired from Duke in 2004. That same year, his son Michael, along with wife Sheila, established the Wilkins Distinguished Professorship, currently held by John H. Sampson, MD, PhD.

He served as president of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons from 1979-1980; secretary of the Southern Neurosurgical Society (SNS) from 1988-1991, president of SNS from 1992-1993; and as treasurer of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons from 1989-1992. He collected all of the classic articles on neurosurgery and published the full series as a 3-volume set called, Neurosurgery, which became a classic textbook for neurosurgical trainees; he also authored hundreds of research articles and held editorships on a number of journals.

“He and Gloria worked together in every capacity and really shaped Duke Neurosurgery by creating a sense of family,” said Dr. John H. Sampson, Robert H. and Gloria Wilkins Professor of Neurosurgery and chair of the Department of Neurosurgery. “They had a true partnership and were known for welcoming the residents into their home like family for dinner, fellowship and the celebration of holidays. Bob Wilkins, always with Gloria by his side, was a class act. We will miss him dearly.”

In retirement, he and Gloria travelled extensively to spend time with their children, Michael, Jeffrey and Elizabeth (Betsy), their grandchildren and an assortment of friends. He supported his church and passionate about global health and the provision of neurological surgery to under-served populations. He travelled to Uganda in 2008 with Duke’s new Global Neurosurgery program. While there, he performed multiple complex neurosurgical procedures. Wilkins joined the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in January 2012 as director of academics and professor of neurosurgery. The Robert H. Wilkins Lectureship in Academic Neurosurgery was created in his honor in 2015 as a joint partnership between the schools, a collaboration he greatly enjoyed.

The Wilkins Lectureship, most recently held in February at the Washington Duke Inn, will continue for many years to come. Benjamin C. Warf, MD, professor of neurosurgery at Harvard Medical School and chair of Hydrocephalus and Spina Bifida at Boston Children's Hospital will give the 2018 Wilkins Lecture, specifically at the request of Wilkins.

“He wanted all of us working together to solve complex problems and he inspired positive, good things,” said Dr. Matt Ewend, chair of the UNC Department of Neurosurgery and president of UNC Physicians.  “I was most impressed by his varied interests – everything from historical neurosurgical instruments to the National Football League. I didn’t realize, at first, what a wonderful sense of humor he had. He really liked a good pun, but he liked a bad pun even better.”

A memorial service for Dr. Wilkins is planned at 3 p.m. on Saturday, April 29 in Hugh Chapin Auditorium in Galloway Ridge at Fearrington, located at 3000 Galloway Ridge Road in Pittsboro, NC.