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Robert Marshak, former dean of the UPenn Vet School and a bovine expert, dies at 97

Dr. Marshak was Penn Vet School's dean from 1973 to 1987. “His brilliance and innovation were palpable. Those he affected are legion,” a colleague said.

Former Penn Vet School Dean Robert Marshak in 2016, with a dairy calf named Bobby. The calf was given to him to mark his 60th year at the vet school.
Former Penn Vet School Dean Robert Marshak in 2016, with a dairy calf named Bobby. The calf was given to him to mark his 60th year at the vet school.Read moreCourtesy of the Veterinary School of the University of Pennsylvania

Robert Marshak, 97, of Newtown Square, who as dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine advanced animal care and mentored generations of students and faculty, died Tuesday, Oct. 20, of heart disease at Penn Hospice at Rittenhouse.

Born in New York City to David and Edith Marshak, he received a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University and in 1945 graduated from Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

After graduation, he moved to southeastern Vermont and established a solo veterinary practice in Springfield, where he worked to improve the care and well-being of dairy cows.

In 1948, he married Ruth Lyons, then a cellist with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra. They had three sons.

Dr. Marshak’s intellectual curiosity was not limited to his practice. He began publishing case studies and traveling on days off to Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital to conduct research on bovine metabolism and basic science.

In 1956, Dr. Marshak’s research efforts culminated in a major conference on bone and mineral metabolism. He organized the professional meeting, and its proceedings were published by the New York Academy of Sciences.

That same year, Dr. Marshak moved to Philadelphia to join the Penn Vet School faculty as a full professor. Two years later, he became chair of the department of medicine. He remained there for 35 years, serving as dean from 1973 to 1987. He retired in 1993.

“I attended the school of veterinary medicine from 1974 to 1980 when it was ‘Bob Marshak’s School,’” said Joan C. Hendricks, the school’s dean from 2006 to 2018. “His brilliance and innovation were palpable. Those he affected are legion.”

Dr. Marshak drove fundamental change in veterinary education and in the practice of veterinary medicine. He conceived of and implemented the creation of medical specialties for animals such as cardiology, anesthesiology, and orthopedic surgery.

He did this by encouraging promising vet students to undergo residency-level training at Penn’s medical school for humans and then to return to the vet school. The trainees brought heightened basic science and clinical skills to the vet school’s clinics and helped to develop its residency programs in medical specialties for animals. This pattern soon became the dominant model for veterinary education.

Along with the development of clinical specialties, Dr. Marshak added a strong research component by recruiting and mentoring scientists and veterinarian-scientists of international caliber.

“Bob Marshak was constantly on the lookout for students who he thought had promise to be the next generation of veterinary scientists, who could influence the profession,” said Michael Kotlikoff, dean emeritus of Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine and now provost at Cornell.

Dr. Marshak was “perhaps the most influential dean of the second half of the 20th century,” said Cornell dean emeritus Donald Smith.

Dr. Marshak drove the building of the Ryan Veterinary Hospital, a state-of-the-art small animal hospital in West Philadelphia, and the creation in 1978 of the first aquatic veterinary medicine program, studying marine mammals in collaboration with Cornell. Most important, he established the financial stability needed to support new directions at the school.

Dr. Marshak received an honorary doctorate from the University of Bern, Switzerland, the Salmon Award for Distinguished Alumni from Cornell, and election to the National Academy of Medicine. He was one of very few veterinarians chosen for that honor. In 2016, as part of festivities to mark his 60th year at Penn, he was given a dairy calf named Bobby.

In the early 1980s, Dr. Marshak and his wife divorced. He met Margo Post Marshall, at the time vice dean of Penn’s School of Law. They married in 1983.

Dr. Marshak was a lover of opera, starting as a teen. He and wife Margo attended performances in Philadelphia and New York, and he took great pleasure in introducing friends and family to the opera.

In addition to Margo, Dr. Marshak is survived by sons William, John, and Richard; a grandchild; and stepson Derek Marshall. His first wife died earlier.

A celebration of life will be held later.

Memorial contributions may be made by check to the trustees of the University of Pennsylvania and mailed to Penn Vet Office of Institutional Advancement, 3800 Spruce St., Suite 151E, Philadelphia, Pa. 19104, or via