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Robert Ross, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA), died on June 5 in Tucson, AZ, of pneumonia, at the age of 86.

After joining the MDA in 1955 as the Public Information Director and then becoming the Executive Director in 1962, Ross built MDA from several local chapters into an internationally distinguished nonprofit organization.

The voluntary health agency, headquartered in Tucson, provides worldwide research, medical and community services, and professional and public health education on more than 40 neuromuscular diseases.

Ross diligently established harmonious relationships with the press and enlisted business leaders and celebrities to help the organization. It was Ross who, in 1966, asked Jerry Lewis to star in the MDA Labor Day Telethon, which subsequently became America's largest and most well-known televised fundraiser. Lewis is MDA Chairman.


“Ross was the indisputable leader, the heart, soul, and voice of the MDA,” said Lewis P. Rowland, MD, Editor-in-Chief of Neurology Today and Professor of Neurology at Columbia University. For more than forty years, he directed a nationwide staff and two million volunteers while coordinating activities for MDA fundraising, publicity, disability policies, medical and humanitarian services, and medical research. In the 1970s, Ross also served as the MDA representative on the President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped (now the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities).

“Ross was deeply compassionate about patients who were suffering and a hero to me for embracing patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis,” said Stanley H. Appel, MD, Neurology Chair at Methodist Neurological Institute in Houston, Texas. “Bob was also the most gifted man with words that I have ever known, using them to inspire and comfort his colleagues as well as patients and their families. He was truly the Producer and Director par excellence.”


Robert Ross.

Among Ross's achievements, he began MDA's summer camp program for children with neuromuscular diseases, which benefits more than 4,000 children a year. He also developed the “Love Network,” comprising 200 television stations that annually broadcast the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon.

“Public support for neuromuscular diseases is a direct result of the tireless efforts of Bob Ross,” Jerry R. Mendell, MD, Director of the Center for Gene Therapy and Professor of Pediatrics and Neurology at Columbus Children's Research Institute, told Neurology Today.


“Under Bob Ross's leadership, the MDA has made an enormous contribution to academic neurology and to patients with neuromuscular disorders,” said Steven P. Ringel, MD, Associate Editor-in-Chief of Neurology Today and Professor and Director of the Neuromuscular Division at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver. “My career was greatly influenced when I received a post-doctoral research fellowship in 1972 to work at the NIH,” Dr. Ringel continued, and for the past 30 years he has directed an MDA clinic.

Louis Kunkel, MD, Professor of Pediatrics and Genetics at Harvard Medical School, and trustee of the MDA Scientific Advisory Board, told Neurology Today that he is a “beneficiary of Ross's guidance at MDA.” His absence “will leave a vacuum which will be very difficult to fill,” Dr. Kunkel added.

The MDA has received multiple awards and recognitions under Ross' leadership. “Patients, clinicians, and research scientists on all parts of the globe owe Bob Ross a very hardy thanks for all his efforts,” said Dr. Mendell. The organization was honored with the American Medical Association's Lifetime Achievement Awards in 1996 “for significant and lasting contributions to the health and welfare of humanity.”

Ross is survived by a sister, Charlotte Zand of Great Neck, NY, and five nieces and nephews. The MDA Robert Ross Memorial Fund has been established to receive contributions in his memory. Gifts can be sent to the Muscular Dystrophy Association, 3300 E. Sunrise Dr., Tucson, AZ 85718. Att: MDA Robert Ross Memorial Fund.