Dr. Russell Nelson, 88, Johns Hopkins Hospital president

May 24, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Dr. Russell A. Nelson, the fourth president of Johns Hopkins Hospital whose tenure was marked by significant expansion of its facilities and its emergence as a major medical research center, died Saturday in Naples, Fla.

He was 88 and had formerly lived on West University Parkway.

During his 21 years as president, $50 million worth of new buildings were built, medical services were expanded in East Baltimore and established in Columbia, and the hospital grew by 300 beds and 2,000 employees.

"Russ was a terrific fellow who saw the hospital through some really tough times during the 1950s and 1960s. He deserves an awful lot of credit for that," said his successor, Dr. Robert Heyssel, now retired.

Dr. Nelson had been associated with Hopkins from 1935, when he enrolled as a student at the School of Medicine, to 1973, when he retired.

During his 38 years at Hopkins, he was an intern, resident, staff member and assistant director. In 1952, at age 39, he was named director of the hospital, succeeding Edwin L. Crosby. He was the fourth director since the hospital's founding in 1889. The title was changed to president in 1963.

Under his guidance, the Osler and Halstead buildings expanded, and an eye research building and the Blalock Building were constructed. The $11 million, 15-story Children's Medical Center opened in 1964.

"We became a much larger institution during [Dr. Nelson's tenure]," said Dr. Thomas B. Turner, dean of the medical school from 1957 to 1968. "He increased the faculty, the endowment and admitted the first African-Americans to the medical school. "

Dr. Turner recalled him as an "excellent administrator and a very agreeable person who was well-liked."

"He was a pioneer in the field of hospital management," said Dr. Richard S. Ross, dean emeritus of Hopkins medical school. "It was unusual for an MD to go that route. He developed a school at Hopkins that trained others, who went on to head community hospitals in Baltimore."

When Hopkins celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1964, Dr. Nelson explained that the hospital's greatness lay in the fact that each patient was looked on as an "individual whose illness affects his relationship to his family, his work and his community."

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, as the debate over universal health insurance arose, Dr. Nelson became an outspoken advocate for comprehensive medical insurance.

"If we are to achieve equality of access to health services, we must have a system of universal health insurance. All Americans should be required to have adequate coverage either through approved insurance plans or public means," he told the Association of American Medical Colleges in a 1970 speech.

In attempting to form a health care plan, Dr. Nelson had to deal with 13 government agencies. "That is like going to 13 different stores to find enough parts to put together a new lawn mower," he said.

Dr. Nelson was born in Grand Forks, N.D., and reared in Minot, N.D. He earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Minnesota in 1933 and transferred from its medical school to Hopkins Medical School in 1935, after a physician in Minot helped to underwrite his tuition and expenses.

He received his medical degree in 1937 and, in addition to his work as an administrator, retained an interest in clinical research. He published papers on penicillin therapy for syphilis and articles on hospital management and health care.

In 1939, he married Ruth Jeffcoat, a nurse whom he met at Hopkins hospital.

In retirement, he had lived in Key Biscayne, Fla.; he moved to Naples in 1986. While living in Maryland, he had a second home at Deep Creek Lake, where he pursued his hobby of boat-building.

He was a member of numerous professional organizations and was a former member of the Maryland Club, the Elkridge Club, the Hamilton Street Club and the University Club of New York.

A memorial service will be held at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday in the auditorium of the Weinberg Building at Hopkins Hospital.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a sister, Donna Marie Fishpaw of Brooklyn Center, Minn.; and several nephews and nieces.

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