Melvin Greer, first chairman of neurology department, dies at 80

Melvin Greer, M.D.

Dr. Melvin Greer, the iconic first chairman of the Department of Neurology at UF, died Wednesday. He was 80. Services are scheduled for 1 p.m. Sunday, May 23, at B’Nai Israel, 3830 NW 16th Blvd., in Gainesville.

Swaggering but kind, direct but tactful, confident yet humble — Greer embodied qualities that endeared him to his students and colleagues, according to his friends at the Health Science Center. He was the department chair who would go the extra mile for his faculty, the physician who would fill in for residents, and the father who considered students, faculty and residents as part of his own family.

“We had the honor of bestowing Dr. Greer with a Lifetime Achievement Award just a few weeks ago for his 49 years of service to our college,” said Dr. Michael Good, dean of the College of Medicine. “It was a welcome time for us to reflect on the great things he did for the college and the university — a moment that has been made bittersweet by his passing.”

Good offered condolences and heartfelt support on behalf of the College of Medicine to Greer’s wife, Arline, their daughter, Allison, and their three sons, all COM graduates, Jonathan Greer in 1983, Richard Greer in 1985 and David Greer in 1995.

“Many of us literally remember them following in his footsteps as he strode the halls of the hospital and the Health Science Center,” Good said. “We treasure Dr. Greer for the mentorship he provided and for his kindness. Beyond that, he was an important historical figure at the college. His leadership and service left a lasting imprint on medical education and research at UF, as well as the field of neurology itself.”

Close friends Kenneth Heilman, Ph.D., Robert Watson, M.D., and Edward Valenstein, M.D., a former chairman of the Department of Neurology, said that Greer made a lasting impact on their lives and careers.

Greer joined the College of Medicine faculty in pediatrics and neurology in 1961.

He became the first chairman of the Department of Neurology when it was created in 1974 and remained chair until 2000.

In that time, he trained about 150 residents and countless medical students in his field. For many years, he was the area’s only pediatric neurologist, colleagues say. He also was board-certified in adult neurology.

The current chairman of neurology, Dr. Tetsuo Ashizawa, holds the Greer professorship at UF.

“Dr. Greer was working in the clinic until shortly before he died, and he left his white coat here. We want to keep it here, to symbolically preserve his presence,” Ashizawa said. “I am honored to hold the professorship that carries his name. When I first met him, I asked him for his advice. He smiled and said, ‘I’m glad you’re here, you’re doing a good job.’ That means a great deal to me.

“He undoubtedly was a giant in the department, and his strong leadership, followed by that of Dr. Valenstein, has developed the program to its current excellence,” Ashizawa said.

“Mel was a remarkable leader: decisive and effective, but very kind,” Valenstein said. “His family included his faculty and residents, and we all knew that he would stand behind us. He was also tremendously gracious when I succeeded him as chair. He never attempted to give me advice, unless I asked for it, and I often did. In times of stress, he would tell me that we — the faculty — were here to do research and teach and take the best care of patients. ‘Ed, it should be fun,’ he would say. It was fun for him, and he created an atmosphere in which it was also fun for faculty and students around him. He will be missed.”

Heilman, a distinguished professor of neurology, remembers when Greer recruited him to UF.

“I trained in Boston at the old Harvard neurological unit and was considering a faculty position at Harvard or Dartmouth,” Heilman said. “He called, and immediately there was something about him that came across as genuine and warm.”

Heilman visited UF and asked specifically to speak to doctors in residency at the medical center. He wanted to know what they thought about Greer.

“Residents will level with you,” Heilman said. “They told me he was a man of few words, but he takes wonderful care of his patients. They said he runs his department like it was a family, doing everything he can to make sure the people around him are successful. It turned out that everything the residents told me was true.

“People have always asked me, why wouldn’t I take a position at Harvard, and instead go to this very tiny department — there were only four people in it,” Heilman said. “If you knew Mel Greer, you would understand. He was an ideal chair who got joy from seeing other people succeed.”

Another early recruit, Dr. Robert Watson, a professor of neurology who served for 17 years as senior associate dean for educational affairs at the College of Medicine, recalls he was always uncomfortable with calling his chairman “Mel,” and Greer wasn’t keen on being called Dr. Greer.

So Watson started called him, “Chief,” a name that Greer seemed to like. The name stuck.

“I remember sitting across from him when I interviewed for medical school,” Watson said. “He looked like Errol Flynn, a big, athletic-looking man with a mustache. I was almost immediately intimidated. He started asking me about my research and my life, and in seconds he put me completely at ease. He was the kindest, sweetest person. He had a remarkable way about him that I always tried to emulate, but never got quite right. He could let you know when you hadn’t done something well, but not erode your confidence.”

His skills as a physician were awe-inspiring, something Watson noticed early in his training.

“A young, adolescent girl had undergone exploratory abdominal surgery. Nothing was found wrong with her. She was referred (to the neurological unit), and after a lot of consultations, everybody had agreed that she was malingering — her problems were just stress-related,” Watson said. “I still remember him coming back from a meeting, and looking through her door. He stepped out, looked at us and said, ‘She has a brain tumor.’ This was before scans and everything we have today to make a diagnosis. And of course it turned out she did have a brain tumor. When I asked him how he knew, he said, ‘Watson it was easy. Didn’t you notice how her head was tilted? Children with brain tumors have pain in the back of their neck, so they have to tilt their head.’ I thought, ‘Oh brother, he makes this amazing diagnosis just by glancing through a door.’ He was phenomenal.”

In lieu of flowers, donations in his memory can be made to the Melvin Greer Academic Endowment Fund, which was established in June 2000 to support educational activities in the Department of Neurology. Information on donations can be obtained from the department at 352-273-5550.

Dr. Greer graduated with a bachelor’s degree with honors in 1950 from the College of Arts and Pure Science at New York University, where he would go on to earn his medical degree in 1954. He served his internship and residency at Bellevue Hospital in New York and was a fellow in neurology at the New York Neurological Institute of the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center.

He received several teaching awards from UF, including the 1970 Hippocratic Award and the 1975 and 1979 Award for Clinical Teaching Excellence.

He continued to serve as a faculty member in the Department of Neurology until shortly before his passing. Along the way, he held leadership positions on a variety of medical boards, and he served in a number of positions for the American Academy of Neurology, and was its president from 1985 to 1987.

He was a special consultant to the director of the National Institutes of Health and to the American Medical Association’s Residency Review Committee, and a consultant with the Florida Division of Corrections, the AMA committee on Veterans Administration and the National Vaccine Advisory Commission of the American Academy of Neurology. He was a Fellow with the American Academy of Neurology and the American Academy of Pediatrics.