Discovering the mind
Published: Sunday, January 29, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 27, 2012 at 5:38 p.m.
More than 200 surgical instruments now used in brain surgery bear his name.
Dr. Albert Rhoton Jr.
Work: Currently professor emeritus in the neurosurgery department at the University of Florida; longtime department chairman.
Family: Wife, Joyce, four children, 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in social work from Ohio State University, medical doctorate from Washington University; residencies at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University and Barnes-Jewish Hospital.
His book, "Cranial Anatomy and Surgical Approaches," is the definitive work of brain anatomy, the best-selling neurosurgery book in the world, that's been translated into Portuguese and Chinese and is about to go into another two languages.
But an improbable pathway led Dr. Albert Rhoton Jr. to know the powers of his own cerebrum — at least at the start.
The World Federation of Neurosurgical Societies' 2011 neurosurgeon of the year was born 79 years ago in a remote part of Kentucky — Appalachia — to parents who hadn't completed high school. A bag of corn paid for the midwife's services at his delivery in the family log cabin and he learned in a one-room schoolhouse where attendance fluctuated depending on whether it was harvest time.
"I never seriously considered being a doctor," Rhoton said.
This weekend, honoring Rhoton's 40 years at the University of Florida has been the main focus of the Neurology Research Days at the University of Florida, featuring speakers including the director of
neurosurgery at the University of Southern California's Kenneth Norris Jr. Cancer Hospital and other neurosurgeons from all over the world.
And that's just the beginning of the honors coming his way.
The American Association of Neurological Surgeons in April will name its first fund after Rhoton in a drive to fund specific research that Rhoton started.
"He has made a timeless contribution to our field," said Dr. William Couldwell, secretary of the association. "He's the modern day da Vinci in respect to (developing knowledge about) the modern anatomy" of the brain.
Rhoton counts the presidents of neurological societies in Brazil, Britain and Japan among his former students.
Dr. William Friedman, chairman of the neurosurgery department at UF, said Rhoton is the reason he came here from the No. 1 spot in his class at Ohio State University College of Medicine.
"He has changed neurosurgery for the better by his meticulous microanatomical studies, published … in many papers and books," Friedman said. "These studies literally revolutionized neurosurgical approaches to common problems, like pituitary tumors, vestibular schwannomas, skull base tumors, etc. In addition, he is an extraordinary teacher."
The fellows from around the world who study with him jump to attention when he walks into the room. He's not currently on salary at UF, but he comes in every day to help instruct.
Dr. Maria Peris-Celda came from Spain: "It is such a privilege to work with him," she said.
Rhoton, however, said he never really stood out in academia — and planned to work with underprivileged children as a social worker. But then learning about the brain set his world on fire in a physiological psychology class, he said.
"It was the most marvelous thing that I had ever encountered," he said of those lessons as an undergrad at Ohio State University. "And the fact you could do surgery on the brain to help people. … Right then, I decided I wanted to be a neurosurgeon."
After graduating with a degree in social work, Rhoton undertook a year of fulfilling his premedical requirements, surviving on $1,000 worth of loaned quarters that a fellow student had rolled away over the years.
He met his wife of 55 years while helping teach an anatomy class.
After medical school, at Washington University, Rhoton started practicing at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., but then he was lured to the University of Florida in 1972 to head the fledgling neurosurgery department.
"I had a missionary spirit and they offered me the job as head of neurosurgery and I had that inner desire to build a great service."
In his tenure there, the department was endowed with 11 chairs and attracted unprecedented donations, including the first $1 million gift that the State University System ever received. Most of that was a result of the new paths Rhoton was finding to relieve the maladies of the brain.
Rhoton's mantra then was the same as it is now: Make brain surgery accurate, gentle and safe.
His work has put not only tiny tools into surgeons' hands, but a microscope in front of their eyes. Yet Rhoton's description of his life's work mostly refers to "we."
"For lesions deep in the brain, we've introduced several techniques … to navigate through some of the brain's natural clefts and fissures, rather than cutting through large thicknesses of the brain," he said.
Surrounded by pictures from his life at his office in the McKnight Brain Institute — from the log cabin he grew up in to him standing with U.S. presidents — Rhoton said he is in awe of the material he has to work with.
"It's the crown jewel of creation and evolution," he said.
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