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SCOTT DREYER: Tribute to A Great American (II): Robert Robison (1927-2021)

The days of our lives add up to seventy years, or eighty, if one is especially strong.              — Psalm 90:10a


Many folks today have been told the Bible is an ancient, archaic book with no relevance to life in the US in 2021. However, in a Psalm that is about 2,500-3,000 years old, the Bible says the average human lifespan is about seventy, or eighty if one has especially good health and stamina. 

Thus it is amazing how, in a CDC finding from 2018, the average American lifespan was 78.7 years. (The global average was considerably lower.) So, despite the passage of thousands of years, government programs, and the advances of technology and lifestyle comforts, most American lives still fall between those two “goal posts” of 70 and 80 the Psalmist referred to hundreds of years before the time of Christ.

By any measure, biblical or modern, Robert Robison had a long and rich life, living independently until June 2021 when at age 94 he passed peacefully in his sleep in his own bed at home. In “Tribute to a Great American: Robert Robison,” (Part I), we looked at the early years of this remarkable member of “The Greatest Generation.” 

For most people, achieving and maintaining success in one career is a great achievement. Robison–”Uncle Bob” to many, including me–was a successful farmer. He was so outstanding, he was one of the first farmers in Indiana to use no-till and cover crops and eventually amassed prime farmland in six counties.

However, he was not only extraordinary as an agriculturalist. He also excelled as a scholar and scientist. Just as farming was in his blood, so too was scholarship. His father had been a principal and two of his five siblings became teachers, so learning and curiosity were part of his DNA. Robison joined the US Marine Corps as soon as he turned 18 in 1945; therefore, his tour of duty included both the closing phase of WWII and the early phase of the Cold War. He served the USA and participated in world history at a truly crucial time, and because of his service was later able to use the new GI Bill to go to college. He later earned a master’s degree and stopped just short of a PhD. 

With his academic background, he worked as a full-time research scientist in the pharmaceutical industry for about 52 years. Most of that time was with Eli Lilly, where he worked at their headquarters in Indianapolis, followed by about five years with Cook pharmaceuticals. Even after his “retirement,” he served as a consultant to Lilly and Cook until he was around 80!

During his career that spanned over a half century, Robison earned and co-earned seven international patents.  He was on the team that developed Vancomycin, an antibiotic that is used in hospitals to fight infections, especially against drug-resistant bacteria like MRSA. He holds a patent on Vincristine (brand name Oncovin) which is a chemotherapy drug used to treat many kinds of cancer including leukemia and Hodgkin’s Disease. It has increased the survival rate for some childhood cancers by over 50%! He also helped develop Keflex, an antibiotic to treat upper respiratory, ear, and skin infections. In addition to the medications, Robison holds a patent on a medical device used to inject liquid drugs directly into IV’s. Estimates are, his scientific breakthroughs have saved up to 100,000 lives, especially those of children. For reference, that is the equivalent of the entire population of Roanoke City, Virginia: men, women, and children. 

(Side note: for years it has been popular to bash “Big Pharma.” Yes, American medical costs are outrageous, but that is another topic for another column for another day. For now, suffice it to say: in our fallen world where illnesses are common, we should be thankful for researchers like Robison and all the others who invest the time and energy to develop the medicines that save lives.)

Somehow, Robison was able to build a fantastic career during weekday office hours, manage a growing farm spread out in different parts of Indiana in the evenings and on weekends, and all while maintaining a healthy marriage and raising five sons to successful adulthood. Amazing! 

Robison did not keep his success to himself, but liked to share it. 

This is where you come in.

Chief Seattle said, “All things are connected,” and without Robert Robison, chances are, you would not even be reading this column right now. 

Stay tuned to find out why. To be continued.


How old are the Psalms

CDC: Average American Life Expectancy

Robison’s obituary in the Indianapolis Star

Scott Dreyer in his classroom.

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