An International Authority on Congenital Disorders

By Karen L. Brooks

Bob Brent can’t explain what drew him to the field of medicine. Nobody in his family had attended college, let alone medical school, and he didn’t have any physician role models as a child. But even in his youth, he somehow sensed his calling.

“When I was 8, I decided that I was going to be a physician who didn’t charge his patients,” he says. “My mother didn’t think that sounded very practical.”

Brent wasn’t deterred and went on to fulfill his dream. One of the world’s leading experts in radiation biology, developmental biology, embryology and teratology, he has been providing free reproductive risk assessments to women and families for more than 50 years.

Raised in Rochester, N.Y., Brent didn’t hesitate before pursuing his ambitions. Knowing he would be drafted into World War II after high school, he took his advanced exams early and was accepted to the University of Rochester at age 15. As a student, he held a job with the Manhattan Project (later the Atomic Energy Commission), researching the effects of radiation on developing embryos. This work provided the foundation for his entire career.

The war ended before the date of Brent’s U.S. Army induction notice, so he completed his bachelor’s degree at just 18. “Getting into medical school as a teenager wasn’t easy. I applied to 86 schools over the next three years,” says Brent, who continued his radiation research the whole time.

Finally accepted to the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry at 21, Brent received his MD in 1953 and a PhD in embryology and radiation biology in 1955 and did a pediatric residency at Massachusetts General Hospital. He then served two years in the Army, heading the radiation biology section at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, where he was involved in monitoring radiation exposure resulting from nuclear bomb testing programs.

After his military service, Brent joined Jefferson’s faculty and advanced to become chair of pediatrics, a role he held for three decades. He is now the Distinguished Louis and Bess Stein Professor of Pediatrics, Radiology and Pathology and head of the Clinical and Environmental Teratology Laboratory at the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del. — a major Jefferson partner. The author of nearly 500 scientific publications, including six books and four movies, Brent has won many awards for his achievements, such as Castle-Connolly Physician of the Year; the Alfred I. duPont Award for Excellence in Children’s Health Care; and election to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.

Although he rarely works in the clinic these days, Brent continues to counsel patients as an expert editor for the online community of the Health Physics Society, a group of specialists in radiation safety. As leader of the site’s pregnancy section, he conducts about 2,000 free consultations per year for pregnant women and families who have been exposed to potentially toxic agents. He recently surpassed his 25,000th assessment.

Brent’s charitable activities extend beyond free health counseling. He and his wife of 63 years, Lillian, have established four scholarships at Jefferson and in 2011 created the Robert and Lillian Brent Alumni Giving Incentive Fund to inspire generosity among JMC graduates. The Brents made a donation that places funds in each new graduate’s account for five years, resulting in 100 percent giving participation for that class. They hope that after five years, alumni will be motivated to maintain this status on their own.

“The gratification and joy of sustaining an institution of education is a very rewarding part of life,” Brent says.

And while Brent might not have encountered many physician role models growing up, he has certainly served as one for subsequent generations. His sons, David and Larry, are JMC alumni, and his daughter, Deborah, graduated from the Jefferson School of Nursing. This past fall, his granddaughter, Elyssa, began her first year at JMC. Brent recently shared reflections on his profession.

Q: What brought you to Jefferson back in 1957?

A: After I was discharged from the Army, I received four job offers, but Jefferson’s was exceptional. The University offered me four laboratories, my own animal facility and the rank of associate professor, even though I was only 29 years old. Also, the chairman of obstetrics and gynecology, Dr. Thaddeus Montgomery, interviewed me and was a real class act, just such an impressive and ethical person. I thought that if this was the kind of faculty that Jefferson employed, it had to be a good place.

Q: You’ve enjoyed a lengthy career. What advice would you give students going into medicine today?
A: D on’t be discouraged by the pressures and responsibilities that come with being a physician — they are all worthwhile. No other profession will give you more satisfaction or allow you to make a greater contribution to the world. You will constantly be stimulated by new discoveries, so take every opportunity to learn. I am 85 years old and still learn at least five things every day.

Q: Have you ever considered retiring?
A: No, because I always look forward to going to work and because I am still helping patients through my Web consultations. Women who believe that they have been exposed to toxic agents reach out for a second opinion after their physicians may have recommend interrupting a wanted pregnancy. I never tell a patient what to do — I explain risks and let them make their own decisions. Sometimes, their exposure was so low that drastic measures aren’t necessary, and I help them understand that and save lives in the process.

Q: What inspired you to establish scholarship funds at Jefferson?
A: I believe that education should be free. Tuition these days is just too high for a young person to handle. There is nothing more important than education, and my family wants to make medical education attainable.

Q: What is your proudest professional accomplishment?

A: First, the growth I oversaw in Jefferson’s Department of Pediatrics. When I became acting chairman, I had three faculty members and a very small budget. By the time I became emeritus chairman 30 years later, our main pediatrics site had moved to the Nemours/duPont Hospital for Children with 140 faculty members and a budget of about $125 million. The Nemours programs are now among the largest in the country and a great source of pride for me.

Second, my research. I couldn’t counsel my patients without having completed so much basic research in reproductive biology, embryology and toxicology. People I have met or taught over the years might someday forget me, but my research publications will live on forever. The medical literature chronicling all of the new knowledge I uncovered — that is my legacy.
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