The cerebral life of Albert Rhoton

Albert L. Rhoton Jr., M.D., almost became a social worker. But with just one semester to go as an undergraduate, he found love in his physiological psychology class, where he was first exposed to the mysteries and wonders of the human brain. 

“The function of the brain turned me on so much, I decided that I wanted to become a neurosurgeon,” Rhoton said. 

He completed his social work degree before entering a premedical program at The Ohio State University and eventually attending the Washington University School of Medicine, where he graduated top of the class of 1959.

Now, more than 50 years later, Rhoton’s life and work are being celebrated during the UF College of Medicine’s annual Neurosurgery Research Days Friday and Saturday in Gainesville. 

Hailed by international colleagues as one of the world’s leading neurosurgeons, he has trained thousands of fellows and residents from around the world and received numerous awards and high honors, including the Medal of Honor of the World Federation of Neurosurgical Societies and the Cushing Medal, the highest honor granted by the American Association of Neurological Surgeons.

And, fittingly enough, Rhoton never stopped being a social worker.

His career had an unlikely beginning. Delivered by a midwife in a log cabin in return for a bag of corn in rural Parvin, Ky., Rhoton flunked his fifth grade classes.

Albert L. Rhoton Jr., M.D., founding chairman of the department of neurosurgery at the UF College of Medicine, displays photos, including the log cabin in which he was born, his first schoolhouse in which his parents taught, and he and his wife, Joyce, with President Jimmy Carter and Roselyn Carter at the 1990 Annual Meeting of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons. Photo by Jesse S. Jones

When Rhoton, the R.D. Keene Family professor of neurosurgery, arrived at UF in 1972 after an internship at Columbia Presbyterian in New York and a faculty position in neurosurgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., there was no department of neurosurgery

“We started with two neurosurgeons in a little division,” Rhoton said. “I felt like I found my place here and decided to stick with it. The vision of growth in neurosurgery and building a brain institute were accepted by the institution and the leadership.”

His work placed UF prominently on the neurosurgery map.

“Dr. Rhoton took a relatively unknown division and turned it into one of the best neurosurgery departments in the world,” said William Friedman, M.D., the Albert L. Rhoton Jr., professor and chairman of neurosurgery at the UF College of Medicine. “He is the reason I came to UF to train.”

In 1975, Rhoton began to teach microneurosurgery, which involves using microscopes and miniaturized precision tools to perform intricate procedures. More than 1,000 neurosurgeons and residents have come to UF from Asia, Africa, Europe and North and South America to attend his courses. He also developed more than 200 neurosurgical instruments, such as Rhoton Micro Dissectors to dissect aneurysms and tumors.

“I incorporated microsurgical techniques into my practice because it appeared to increase the safety with which we could delve deep into and under the brain,” he said.

Rhoton’s personal motto is to provide more accurate, gentle, safe and precise ways to approach and manage neurosurgery.

“I’ve made the motto a theme of what we do every day to improve neurosurgery, so that our patients receive better care,” he said. “Rather than becoming impulsive and excited quickly, our goal is to stay focused and calm in difficult situations.”

His background in social work helped him to better understand fear, anger and other emotions his patients experienced.

“Competence and compassion are two traits of physicians,” Rhoton said. “Social work taught me to bring the element of compassion into what I do.” 

It is a no-brainer, then, that this calm and mild-mannered gentleman who was named Neurosurgeon of the Year by the journal World Neurosurgery, is an inspiration to many. 

“The opportunity to train under Dr. Rhoton at the UF College of Medicine has been and continues to be among the most significant personal and professional highlights of my life,” said J. Richard Lister, M.D., M.B.A., associate chair and professor of the College of Medicine’s department of neurosurgery.

Rhoton and his passion for helping others through medicine also motivated his four children to pursue medical professions.

“My dad always made us believe it was an honor and a privilege to be in a medical profession,” said Alice Rhoton-Vlasak, M.D., an associate professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at UF. “Living around someone who takes inspiration from what he does daily, it’s hard not to want to follow his steps.”