As We Knew Him

As We Knew Him

Introduction: Nelson L. Rhodus, D.M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.D.*:

“Well of course I know who Dr. Gorlin is. He’s one of the main reasons I am going to Minnesota!” This is what I said to one of my colleagues more than 25 years ago when I made the decision to join the faculty of the University of Minnesota.

It was such a distinct pleasure to know and work with Bob Gorlin over the years. No, it was much more than that: it was a pure joy. He was a person you really looked forward to seeing. Whistling down the hallway, waving to me in the cafeteria, or bursting into my office announcing some discovery, it was pure pleasure. You always had time or made time to visit with Bob Gorlin. My perception of Bob can be summed up in three categories: genius, generous, and genuine.

If Bob Gorlin wasn’t a genius, I don’t know who could be defined as one. He knew and could remember so many facts, speak so many languages. The breadth of his knowledge was incredible: art, history, architecture, anthropology, linguistics; even more amazingly within medicine itself: genetics, pediatrics, dermatology, otolaryngology, oncology. An expert who held academic appointments in so many disciplines, he was actually a dentist. By an amazing stroke of fate, the US Army randomly assigned him to enter dental school at Washington University in St. Louis. Anyone who has heard his lectures on the “Evil Eye”, the Hapsburg Jaw, or “About Face” needs no convincing of his genius. His more than 600 scientific publications and numerous international academic awards and accolades leave little doubt. Inquisitive and drawn to the unusual, Bob investigated, named, and consulted on literally hundreds of rare and challenging syndromes. He enjoyed the odd and eccentric. He himself was that way, and I always thought perhaps that was why he liked me.

Bob was incredibly generous. When first in Minnesota, I was preparing for Oral Medicine Board Certification. Bob tutored me every Thursday for an hour and a half for a full year, proffering so much invaluable knowledge in his kind manner. “You remember,” he would say, “that Cowden’s syndrome is autosomal dominant with complete penetrance and variable expressivity.” Of course, I had no clue. He also participated as a teacher in my Introduction to Oral Pathology course for many years. He shared: slides, articles, books; fruits, vegetables, flowers from his garden…

Bob was genuine: What you saw was precisely what you got — and then some. He was so genuinely human. I fondly remember stories of his youth: hiding from revenuers looking for his father who was bootlegging whiskey from Canada, traveling with his uncle who was a chicken judge for the NY county fairs, selling corsages to the frat boys at Columbia to give their girlfriends. So generous with his time, experiences, and ever keen wit, in the last months, he frequented our offices nearly every day. He was always welcome; always amazing to us; always incomparable and unforgettable.

In this issue of NWD, please enjoy these offerings contributed by many friends and colleagues as they specifically remember the Bob Gorlin they knew and loved. As you already know, indeed, Bob Gorlin is a legend.

And So Say All of Us

Gathering stories about Bob Gorlin was easy. Picking was the kicker. We begin with the unanimity: a reminiscence that resonates with so many of the qualities expressed in the material received.

As a resident in the early 90s, I stood in awe of Professor Gorlin, feeling there was no one more intelligent and confident than he. It was when I returned to Minnesota in 2000 that another side was revealed. I knew he could be outrageous: He greeted my reserved and conservative mother visiting from Kenya with, “Are you Angela’s girlfriend?” (Readers are asked to refer to the history of Kenya to appreciate his panache.) Thus I learned to always have a response to his impromptu scenarios, and this, I think, opened the door to our talks, and our friendship.

Then came the lunches with Drs.Gorlin and Anthony Lund, a weekly ritual which included the harrowing drive to any international cuisine restaurant with Bob at the wheel, usually straddling two lanes. Dr. L knew I have survived a variety of road-traffic cultures, so he “gallantly” gave me the front seat.

At our first lunch we spoke of nothing related to the mouth, and that is how I started to experience the human side of these two men who loved each other so dearly. These hours were always filled with love, gaiety, astute wit, clipped humor, wonderful conversation, and infamous impromptu performances. With Dr. Lund’s absence during the winters, Dr. G would continue the ritual and teach me so much. Markedly more serious at these times, Dr. Gorlin spoke of his mother, father, and very difficult childhood, early days in Minnesota, the School, how he faced discrimination, his first home, travel… Then came the kind and personal questions about my life. He was acutely aware and interested in all around him, and had a deep insight and sensitivity toward people.

To me he was so complex and remarkable a person; an absolute genius, a gentle father, an incredible comedian, a caring counselor, and loyal friend. So dearly loved and missed is he.                                            Angela Wandera

Bob always found time for his fellow faculty members when they had personal academic issues or even health problems. He cared deeply for his patients and his work, and these convictions encompassed his capacity to look after and offer support to his colleagues in time of need.                                                     Richard Goodkind

Bob’s entry into a room was always greeted with acclaim, and he always had a kind word to say to whomever he spoke. Extraordinarily generous with his time, he would never look over his shoulder to see if there were someone more important with whom he could be speaking.                                                          Myer Leonard

As a student research fellow at Faribault State Hospital in 1965, I watched Bob look at each child to gain some understanding of an unusual phenotype or determine what disease process was occurring. Many were undiagnosed at that time, and I could see him trying to bring some clarification to all of the chaos.    Stephen Litton

Dr. Doctor, the Doctor’s Doctor

Working at a level and pace that often left colleagues breathless, Bob never missed a chance to keep the focus where it belonged. Introductions often included a deadpan acknowledgment such as “Dr. Doctor; Professor Professor along with the handshake. And diagnosis in his area of expertise meant be prepared for anything.

Several years ago, a March 17 as I remember, we saw a young boy in the Pediatric Clinic who exhibited several unusual physical characteristics. He was short, had a slightly larger than average head, a small nose, and his most unique feature was large ears. We called Bob, but he was not available. Later that day I ran into him in the hall and described the boy. I had, I admitted, no idea why the patient looked so strange. Aghast, as if to say How could you not recognize this?" Bob said simply, Well it’s obvious. He's a leprechaun!

This story was offered by one of the participants. I can’t vouch for it, but it sounds like something that could have happened. As they say, I don’t know if it’s true, but it should be. colleagues decided to pull a joke on him, creating a non-existent syndrome from a collection of unusual characteristics, then casually mentioning the fictitious patient at dinner. Bob went into a long discussion of the symptoms, sure in his diagnosis, confident to the last laugh – which of course was his: there is a very rare syndrome that exhibits all the characteristics described.               Michael Till

For All Concerned

Myer Leonard dubbed Bob the polymath,* and the magnetism of that quality was evident. Once Bob was a speaker on a c.e./vacation cruise in Greece and the Aegean: dentists for Bob, plus physicians and lawyers with their own speakers. So fascinating was Bob’s knowledge of medicine, science, law, history, archaeology, and anthropology that by week’s end the other lecture rooms were nearly empty as the audiences "voted with their feet" and came to hear him. Bob knew how to make whatever works" the order of the day wherever the day was taking him.

Bob was asked to see a 12-year-old boy in hospital. The child was very frightened and resistant to examination. Bob strode into the room, took off his shoes, and bright red socks ablaze, climbed into bed with the child and became Donald Duck. The kid smiled. Bob asked him what he did to amuse his friends. “I can imitate a buzz saw,” he said. “Let’s hear it!” was followed by “That’s really good!” And they were off. The exam proceeded with Dr. Duck attracting the residents back to the room, whereupon Bob said, “I know this doctor very well. Is it okay if he examines you too? I’ll drop back tomorrow to make sure it’s all okay.”  The boy nodded yes, and the following day Bob did visit him again.                                                                  Michael Cohen

For me, this consultation at the Metabolic Clinic contains the essence of what Bob Gorlin could do for all concerned with the challenge of a genetic syndrome.

When we entered the examination room, there were pediatric geneticists, a medical student, a six-year-old girl who had been referred for facial and body peculiarities, and her parents. Everyone waited for the impressive man to speak. Bob went over to the young lady and asked, “Are you married?” Her parents went pale and speechless. He turned to the lead physician to listen and discuss, then returned to the parents to assure them that the deviations had neither physical nor mental consequences. Bob then went to the child and instructed her to be careful about selecting her future husband. Then he smiled, said good-bye, and left. All of the above didn’t take more than five minutes. Within that short period he:

1.  Recognized certain features of the child that were not recognized during the previous six years.

2. Established the child was normal.

3.  Reassured the parents there was no need to be concerned about having more children.

4.  Relieved the parents’ anxiety after six endless years of seeing countless consultants in vain.

5. Acted like a happy clown.

6.  Didn’t ask either for insurance or an address for billing purposes.                                                 Robert Fisch

What Bob Gorlin knew went far beyond the science of his specialty. He understood the reality of possibility. He understood the imperative in “Find a way”. The following story shows his understanding that imagination, courage, and persistence are how we all move forward together.

Gary had been born without a nose. He had an inch-and-a-half separation between his eyes. Several childhood surgeries had proved marginal successes at best, and his struggle socially and academically, although he was very bright, was overwhelming. Finally, at age 30, he came to the U of M, where Dr. Gorlin joined the story.

It was in about 1974 that we learned Dr. Gorlin had a database to match innovative surgeons with patients having rare medical conditions. It yielded only two surgeons in the world who were doing the kind of work Gary needed. But Gary was living at home on public assistance, so we had to try to convince the welfare department to cover a large part of the cost. They were “unwilling to address the issue”. Through the University ombudsman we met then new governor Rudy Perpich, who directed us to the director of the welfare department, again to no result. But we had Bob. He had stayed in touch with Gary on a regular basis, and his help, through letters and phone calls, finally convinced the Medical Review Board of the merit of the case. With the aid of a University psychiatrist who also had befriended Gary, approval was granted, and Gary had the surgery.

In a very delicate procedure, the surgeon partially removed the front of the skull from Gary’s face, then worked from the inside to narrow the space between his eyes and rebuild his nose. One of his ribs was used to fill in the spaces remaining between his eyes. He looked like a truck had hit him, but once healed, his surgery was not noticeable to a casual observer. Gary graduated from college, was dating, and began a career with the Federal Housing and Development Department.

Dr. Gorlin made all of this happen, and I suspect few in his own department ever knew it happened.        Pete Lund

It Is To Laugh

Never ever underestimate the power of a good laugh. Short and sweet: to all the “pickles” who were tickled, the strangers who were included, the paradigms that were punctured, and why we all agree that it feels so good to remember, we dedicate the following.

Dr. Gorlin made it a practice for third-years in oral path to write term papers on subjects literally drawn from a hat. One doubted Bob was going to read them all, and put, I bet you a quarter you are not going to read this paper right in the middle of his. Papers went in; class convened. Bob entered, turned, and announced, “Mr. ---, you owe me a quarter.”                                         Heddie Sedano

Bob and his daughter Cathy took a trip to New York, and along came their beloved poodle Gigi, who happened to have a broken leg complete with big white cast. Many people would stop us, Cathy remembers, to inquire how she had broken her leg. My dad loved seeing their reaction when he replied that she had broken it — skiing.”                 Cathy Gorlin

I have visited many Health Science schools outside of the United States, and when I was introduced to any of the faculty as coming from Minnesota, invariably their first question was, Do you know Bob Gorlin?      James Jensen

Different Voices/Different Rooms

“I used to think of him as the Danny Kaye of dentistry,” said Myer Leonard, contemplating Dr. G’s skills with languages real and imagined. Combine that with the rest of his bag of tricks, and you get — well, you get got.

■ A young female dentist from Sweden was spending time at the School and came to oral path now and then, finally bumping into Bob. Part way into the introductions, he launched into one of his mini-lectures about - Switzerland. “Oh, I love the Alps! All the folks in their beautiful costumes yodeling in front of the chalets! I love yodeling!” The young woman didn’t know what to do – here was this old man going on and on about Heidi, the Matterhorn … Then all of a sudden the words became Swedish, for real, turning into a lengthy conversation during which he even identified the part of the country she came from by her accent. Then he turned on his heel and headed back to his office, leaving the astonished visitor in disbelief that she had met the famous Dr. Gorlin.                        Michael Rohrer

■ A patient who was coming from Norway needed the Gorlin touch, but unfortunately the letter describing her potentially life-threatening problem was in Norwegian. With apologies, I presented the letter, and what followed was typically Bob. He began reading the letter with virtually no pause as he translated. The phone rang and Bob took the call, conferring in the speaker’s apparently eastern European native language. At which time one of the foreign post-docs popped in with a technical question. Grand total: two simultaneous conversations in two foreign languages plus translation of a third. Result for me: diagnosis of a rare developmental problem, a visit for the patient with Dr. Gorlin, a referral to the physician who could best help her, and another moment of awe that such things exist — all of them. But especially Bob.                               David Born

■ I had the office next to Bob for almost 30 years. At the personal level he was a most interesting colleague. It took me awhile to decide when he was being serious and when he was not. Once I figured it out I learnt how to enjoy his unusual take on most things. Often we would have conversations through the wall which separated our offices. And often he would break out into spontaneous song!

Bob supported me in the kind of research we did in biomaterials, particularly in the funding support I garnered in the days when industrial support was not as popular as it is today in academic circles. We miss him – he has left a “character” vacuum that is not easy to fill.  William Douglas

■ For decades we heard the strains of trombone music echoing through the halls of Owre Hall and Moos Tower courtesy of Bob Gorlin – and he does it without a trombone.                                                  James Jensen

Warts and All

We were going to call this section “Elevator Music”. We were going to call it a lot of things. Ah, infamy. It is what it is. It went something like this:

■ Bob, of course, had a special personality in the elevator, and I think he had taken an interest in the psychology of people arriving. We all know that if an elevator is fairly full, there is a hush and a sort of squirming when the doors open and someone else tries to get in. Bob would always walk into the elevator with a big smile and in his booming voice greet everyone he knew. On one such occasion he was already in the corner when a lady got on. There was total silence, until a loud voice said, “Tell your attorney to stop harassing me. The check for the child is in the mail!” Those who knew him burst out laughing, leaving the rest quite horrified.                                       Myer Leonard

■ Heddie Sedano taught oral path here for years, and he says this happened when he was well into his sixties. Bob and Heddie got on the elevator to head down from the 16th floor. There was a woman on the elevator neither of them knew. Bob looked at Heddie and said, “Tell your mother I’m going to stop child support payments. Look at you, you’ve grown, you have a decent job, I’m tired of paying and paying.” “But Mom will be desperate,” Heddie cried. “She has no other income. She’ll starve!” He pleaded and pleaded. Bob was adamant, and scathingly specific in his reasons. When they reached the second floor, the woman stepped halfway off the elevator, looked Bob in the eye, and said, “You‘re a nasty, inconsiderate, thoughtless, selfish man!”                                                    Michael Rohrer

Then again, they say you could often hear singing as the elevator ascended to the 16th floor.


Receiving an award from the Queen of Denmark became a purely Gorlin moment when she graciously congratulated him and he politely replied; "Thank you, Mrs. Queen."

The Gorlin Garden

The garden as metaphor belongs to anyone who has set foot on earth, and we will let you pick your own as you go. Suffice it to say that you know you’ve achieved something when you become a verb.

■ One day Bob came to school carrying several bags of lily of the valley plants from his garden and gave them to faculty and staff. I was one of the lucky ones who got several plants. I brought them home, and my wife, Alvern, planted them along the east side of our house where she had experienced difficulty getting anything to grow. They thrived. That has been known as our Gorlin Garden ever since.                                                         James Jensen

■ One day I happened to mention to Bob that I’d like to start a compost heap. Lo and behold, he embarked on a lively, entertaining, and highly informative explanation on the art and science of composting. True to form, he had a meticulous, evidence-based method for nurturing his compost, working systematically with three piles, moving from one into the next at an appropriate time, and then into the last for final maturation. He made it sound so elegant and delightful, rather like making wine! Have I followed his advice? Well no, not yet – as it would demand more space than I have available here in town. However, I fully intend to Gorlinize my compost when I am retired, move to our lake, and have the time and space to nurture it.                                      Patricia Tarren

■ After Erwin Shaffer’s heart attack in the 1970s, Bob planted his garden for him, and then took care of it throughout the entire summer. Marilyn has confirmed this, and that Erwin was overwhelmed that someone would take it upon himself to do that for him.                      Lois Karl

Now I Do

By, for, and of the family, for us all.

■ Bob’s sister-in-law told us that before push-button Wikipedia, there was Bob. “He knew the importance of sidebar stories to enliven a classroom. He understood how unsuspecting connections woven into history’s fabric whetted imagination and stirred curiosity. And whether flipping the pages of cookbooks or history books, I find allusions to the things he showed me all along the way. I visualize Bob saying, ‘Did you know that?’ To myself I answer, ‘Now I do.’”                               Mildred Alpern

■ About a month before he died, my father asked me if, as a divorce and family lawyer, I ever try to save marriages. For someone who was known for his flirting with strangers in elevators, he wanted to make sure long marriages undergoing a difficult period were encouraged to work it out, and I assured him I did. He certainly appreciated the importance of a good marriage. He had asked my mother to marry him in Donald Duck talk from his hospital bed when he had hepatitis in 1952. And she stuck with him for 54 years even though they only had three dates before he wooed her from his hospital bed.                  Cathy Gorlin

■ During my fellowship, Bob was one of the few faculty who would seek me out to share his knowledge or give an impromptu lecture. Every time Bob met my children in the hall he would talk to them like Donald Duck. This lesson my daughter did not forget, and now she talks like Donald Duck.                               Lisa Schimment

The Past as Prelude

■ As a foreign student from Thailand exposed to the American culture for the first time, admittedly I experienced an “upside-down” culture shock in many ways. One of the key persons whom made me capable of well and comfortably adjusting to the new place was Dr. Gorlin. My inspiration and aspiration in my professional life have always been high having him as a role model. As a student of Dr. Gorlin, my perspective horizon in helping patients was expanded unlimitedly.

I consider myself very fortunate being a student super-vised by Dr. Gorlin during the years of 1989-92. What I had learnt from him might not be as much as he wanted me to have. Nonetheless, what he well succeeded in teaching me was the meaning of “dedication and compassion”. In our Buddhist belief, we are able to transfer our merit to people who have passed away. So at the end of this remark, I would like to transfer my merit, if I have any at all, to my greatest teacher, Dr. Robert J. Gorlin. You will be placed in heart always.                                            Anak Iamaroon

■ I had known about Bob Gorlin since I started dental school in 1966, finally meeting him in 1976. From that moment on he called me by name, and every time he saw me he remembered everything about me and asked about my program, my family, and so much else. I was so proud that he knew me. I’d tell people all the time that Bob Gorlin was the only true genius that knew me by name. He was faster and more accurate than Medline. In one area only he wasn’t accurate. He’d often introduce me as his boss. I don’t believe Bob ever really had a “boss”.                                                             Michael Rohrer

■ At the gatherings we held following my father’s death, I had the opportunity not only to share my grief with friends and colleagues, but with many of his former patients. Because of their obvious phenotypic abnormalities, how these guests knew my father was fairly self-evident. Their universal message was that he treated them as individuals, with hopes and dreams as basic as anyone else. Perhaps because of his challenging childhood, he never quite fit into the normal mode, and thus the abnormal seemed so comfortable and inviting. His irreverence and humor were legendary, as many who rode the elevators in the dental school can testify. His legacy will include the lesson that one need not conform to succeed.                     Jed Gorlin

Expecting Bob

■ After almost two years I am still suffering from the “Expecting Bob syndrome”. There probably is no treatment for the condition, but the symptoms are clear. Usually it occurs when I am in my office and I might hear a whistle, a lyric of a song accompanied by a deep booming voice, or a trumpet call. The word “pickle” still tickles me. I miss Bob’s daily “grand rounds” – cup in hand to just sit and chat for maybe 10 minutes, sharing something smart or just sharing something – school history, acquaintances, family adventures, delightful stories – whatever! I have concluded I don’t want to be treated for this condition; I enjoy having the “Expecting Bob syndrome”.                                                               Karlind Moller

Editor’s note: Because the contributors to this article come with long and impressive footnotes, we refer our readers to the “Bobliography”

The Bobliography

Northwest Dentistry thanks the following people for sharing their memories with us for “Bob Gorlin: As We Knew Him”.

Mildred Alpern is a nationally recognized history teacher. She taught in Suffern, New York and at NYC.

Bashar Bakdash is the Director of the Division of Periodontology, University of Minnesota School of Dentistry.

Carl Bandt is a former Chair of the Department of Periodontology and Associate Dean, University of Minnesota School of Dentistry.

David Born is a former Director of the Division of Health Ecology, University of Minnesota School of Dentistry.

Michael Cohen is Professor Emeritus of Oral Pathology, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, and co-author since the Fourth Edition of Dr. Gorlin’s classic textbook, Syndromes of the Head and Neck.

William Douglas is former Chair of the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry’s Biomaterials Department.

Grace Enebo is president, Crossroads Business Services, Inc., Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Robert Fisch is a retired Professor of Pediatrics, University of Minnesota School of Medicine.

Richard Goodkind is a retired Professor of Prosthetic Dentistry, University of Minnesota School of Dentistry.

Cathy Gorlin is a lawyer specializing in divorce and family law at Best & Flanagan, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Jed Gorlin is Vice-President and Director, Minneapolis Memorial Blood Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Marilyn Gorlin is Bob’s widow and mother of Cathy and Jed Gorlin.

Anak Iamoroon is Professor of Oral Pathology, Department of Odontology and Oral Pathology, Faculty of Dentistry, Chiang Mai University, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

James Jensen is former Chair of the Department of Operative Dentistry and former Associate Dean, University of Minnesota School of Dentistry.

Lois Karl is a former graduate student of Dr. Gorlin’s who now resides in Okemus, Michigan.

Myer Leonard is a retired Oral Surgeon who was on the faculty of both the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry and the Hennepin County Medical Center.

Stephen Litton was an oral pathology research fellow who worked with Dr. Gorlin in 1965. He is an orthodontist who practices in Golden Valley, Minnesota.

Theresa Ludwig is the Health and Safety Officer at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry.

Pete Lund is a former Rehabilitation Counselor for the state of Minnesota.

Anthony Lund is a retired pediatric dentist in Rochester, Minnesota who teaches part-time at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry.

Karlind Moller recently retired as Director of the Cleft Palate and Craniofacial Clinic at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry.

Michael Peterson is a retired computer guru who was in charge of Information Technology for the School of Dentistry’s Clinical Systems.

Paul Quie is Regents’ Professor Emeritus, Department of Pediatrics, University of Minnesota School of Medicine.

Nelson Rhodus is Director of the Division of Oral Medicine, Diagnosis and Radiology, University of Minnesota School of Dentistry and Adjunct Professor, Department of Otolaryngology, School of Medicine, University of Minnesota.

Michael Rohrer is the Director, Division of Oral Pathology, University of Minnesota School of Dentistry.

Tim Rummelhoff is a former University staff photographer and current freelance photographer, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Rex Schaeffer, Joy Lantto, and Dennis Diehl are members of the staff of Dental Engineering Services, University of Minnesota School of Dentistry.

Lisa Schimmenti is a former colleague at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry.

Heddie Sedano is a retired member of the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry’s Oral Pathology faculty, now teaching part-time at UCLA.

Barbara Sundt is the Principal Administrative Specialist for the Division of Periodontology, University of Minnesota School of Dentistry.

Patricia Tarren is a faculty member at Hennepin County Medical Center.

Michael Till is the former Chair of the Department of Pediatric Dentistry, and Dean Emeritus of the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry.

Angela Wandera is a pediatric dentist and orthodontist who practices in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.