Eugene Jonas Towbin (1918–2003)
Eugene Jonas Towbin moved to Arkansas in 1955 to work at the Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital. He was a pioneer in the field of geriatric medicine, and his influence brought the first Geriatric Research Education and Clinical Center (GRECC) in the country to Arkansas. He was instrumental in obtaining funding for the John L. McClellan Memorial Veterans Hospital in Little Rock (Pulaski County) and was one of the founders of the geriatrics program at what is now the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS). He also supported cultural events and organizations in the Little Rock area.
Eugene Towbin was born in New York City on September 18, 1918, to Russian Jewish immigrants Morris and Elena Towbin. He attended public schools in New York, including the prestigious Stuyvesant Science High School, and began work at the American Museum of Natural History at age sixteen.
Towbin attended college at New York University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in psychology and chemistry in 1941. He then earned a master’s degree in experimental psychology at the University of Colorado. When first in Colorado, he lacked the money to rent a room and slept in the chemistry lab. Towbin then became a research assistant and enrolled in the graduate program at the University of Rochester, where he received a PhD in physiology and an MD in 1948. He met Catherine Clancy, a student at Antioch College, while she was serving an internship at the University of Rochester physiology department. They married in October 1949 and eventually had four children. He completed an internship and residency in internal medicine at Duke University, which he finished in June 1952, a month after the couple’s first child was born. Following this, he enlisted in the U.S. Army as a first lieutenant and was stationed at Walter Reed Hospital. He served in the army from November 1952 through November 1954.
After Towbin was discharged from the army, he contacted Dr. Richard Ebert, whose reputation he admired, about a job in Little Rock. He accepted a position with the VA Hospital, and he and his family moved to Little Rock. Towbin became associate chief of staff for research and education beginning in 1960. He was promoted to chief of staff of the Little Rock VA Hospital in 1968, as well as associate dean of the University of Arkansas College of Medicine (now UAMS)—the two institutions worked closely together. Under his leadership, the VA Hospital became one of the VA flagship institutions, providing tertiary healthcare as well as offering major medical research programs. When two new VA hospitals, one in Little Rock and another in North Little Rock (Pulaski County), were completed in 1984, he was asked to be chief of staff of both hospitals. The North Little Rock VA is now named the Eugene J. Towbin Healthcare Center.
Towbin was among the first leaders in the nation to speak about the special knowledge and facilities that are needed for the care of the rapidly expanding number of senior citizens. Under his leadership, the first Geriatric Research and Education Center in the nation was established at the Little Rock VA Hospital in 1972. Subsequently, the medical specialty of geriatrics was born, and medical schools established their own departments of geriatrics.
Towbin received many awards, including the Distinguished Service Award from the UAMS College of Medicine in 1988, the Exceptional Service Award from the Department of Veterans Affairs in 1992, and honorary Doctor of Science degrees from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR) in 1992 and from UAMS in 1996.
In addition to his work, Towbin pursued many other interests. He was an organic gardener, built his own greenhouse for orchids, built and refinished furniture, dabbled in oil painting, collected vintage musical instruments, played the recorder, developed his own recipes for bread and special candies, grew his own grapes, and made wine. He and his wife were founding members of the Arkansas Chamber Music Society, and he was a supporter of the Arkansas Arts Center (now the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts)—always taking visiting physicians there whom he was trying to recruit. He was also a founder of the Unitarian Church of Little Rock.
Towbin retired from the VA Hospital in 1998 after forty-five years of service. He died on September 1, 2003, after twenty years of battling prostate cancer. His ashes are buried in the Unitarian Church Memorial Garden. He was inducted into the UAMS College of Medicine Hall of Fame at its inauguration ceremony in 2004.
For additional information:
“Dr. Eugene Towbin Devoted to Medicine but Led Balanced life.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, September 4, 2003, p. 4B.
UAMS College of Medicine Hall of Fame. http://uams.edu/com/history/halloffame/default.asp (accessed November 15, 2021).
Lucy Towbin and Joseph Bates
Arkansas Department of Health
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