Robert W. Wilkins, M.D. (1906-2003)


Robert W. Wilkins, along with Franz Ingelfinger, was recruited by Chester Keefer to join the Evans Memorial Department of Clinical Research and Preventive Medicine in 1940. Keefer lured Wilkins away from his position at Johns Hopkins with the promise of a $4500-per-year assistant professorship. Upon joining the Medical Center, Wilkins became Assistant Professor of Medicine and the head of the Evans Cardiovascular Section.

As a hypertension researcher, Wilkins challenged the common medical reasoning of the day: the conviction that high blood pressure was necessary to pump blood through the narrowed arteries of hypertensive patients. He and his researchers persisted in finding a safe and effective way to lower blood pressure with the development of the world’s first acknowledged drug to control hypertension. This discovery forever altered the treatment of hypertension. In the 1950s, Wilkins introduced the “step-care” approach to treating hypertension – a method still in existence as the foundation for treating high blood pressure. Dr. Aram Chobanian, former Dean of the School of Medicine and Medical Campus Provost, who was part of Wilkins’ research team, became an international leader in the treatment of cardiovascular disease.

During World War II, Wilkins studied ways to control blood pressure and support blood circulation under extreme stress. His research led to his invention of the “G-suit” an antigravity device used by fighter pilots – and a parachute harness that protected paratroopers on high-altitude jumps. For this work, he was awarded the Certificate of Appreciation from the War and Navy Departments in 1947.

From 1950-1951, Wilkins was the head of the Council of High Blood Pressure Research, the world’s leading hypertension research organization. In 1954, he was named President of the American Heart Association, and in 1958, he received the Lasker Award for his work on antihypertensive drug therapy. From 1960-1972, Wilkins served as the Director of the Evans Memorial Department of Clinical Research and Preventive Medicine, Chairman of the Department of Medicine, and Physician-in-Chief at University Hospital (later to become Boston Medical Center). Like his predecessor, Chester Keefer, Wilkins maintained Keefer’s vision of excellence and a commitment to building a first-class medical center. Upon Wilkins’ retirement in 1972, Norman G. Levinsky, M.D. (1929-2004), an expert in renal medicine, was appointed to these three positions.

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