Dr. Robert Gibson

Dr. Robert Gibson ( )

Dr. Robert W. Gibson, a seminal figure for more than three decades at the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital where he oversaw the desegregation of its facilities, ended its bankruptcy and extended it into the community, died March 8 of heart failure at his Parkton home. He was 89.

"Bob was a major leader in American psychiatry and not just at Sheppard Pratt or in Maryland. He devoted his life to Sheppard Pratt for more than 30 years and was really a remarkable leader," said Dr. Steve Sharfstein who succeeded Dr. Gibson in 1992 as president of what is now Sheppard Pratt Health System.

"He was also a leader when it came to the issue of financing psychiatric care. Sheppard Pratt thrived under Bob, and he really kept the place solvent and moving ahead as a leading psychiatric hospital in the country," said Dr. Sharfstein, who met Dr. Gibson when he was completing his residency in psychiatry. I felt an immediate affinity for him and he was very much my mentor."

Robert Wagner Gibson was born and raised in Lansdowne, Pa., graduating in 1942 from Lansdowne High School.

Dr. Gibson's father was Walter B. Gibson, the noted American pulp writer and magician who was the creator of "The Shadow," one of the most popular radio shows in history. His mother was Charlotte Wagner Gibson, a homemaker.

He attended Lafayette College and entered the Navy's V-12 program at Swarthmore College. After graduation, he entered the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, from which he earned his medical degree in 1948.

After completing an internship in 1948 at Bryn Mawr Hospital in Bryn Mawr, Pa., Dr. Gibson completed residencies in psychiatry at Bethesda Naval Hospital from 1949 to 1952. In 1960, he graduated from the Washington Psychoanalytical Institute as a training psychoanalyst.

From 1952 to 1960, he was a staff psychiatrist at Chestnut Lodge, a Rockville psychiatric institution, before coming to Sheppard Pratt as clinical director in 1960. In 1963, Dr. Gibson was named medical director, the title in those days of the Towson hospital's chief executive officer or president. It wasn't long before he made his influence felt.

He was labeled in a 1991 Baltimore Sun article as "The Man Who Shook Up Sheppard Pratt." He recalled in the article that upon his arrival, the hospital "just seemed to be going no place" and that it was stagnant and lacked vision and direction.

Dr. Gibson recalled his first board meeting, during which he had to persuade members to broaden the hospital's mission and not to sell the facility.

"And so," he recalled, "I said to the board at that first meeting, 'The greatest mistake we could make is to think we were in the business of running a psychiatric hospital.' I still remember the look of despair on their faces. It was as if to say, 'What have we done? Where did we get this idiot?'"

Among the initial crises he had to deal with was Sheppard Pratt's bankruptcy, which he resolved by increasing the daily rate for patients from $20 to $25 per day, said his wife of 32 years, the former Diane Underwood, who was director of rehabilitation services at Sheppard Pratt.

"Suddenly, we went from the red to the black," Dr. Sharfstein said.

Dr. Gibson then turned to desegregating the hospital for both staff and patients before the passage of the 1964 civil rights laws that outlawed segregation.

"He started having lunch with the black staff and then everybody got the idea, which made for more interaction," Dr. Sharfstein said.

"For it was largely the vision of Dr. Gibson that transformed Sheppard from a 19th-century-style asylum into a 21st-century comprehensive psychiatric hospital, nationally known and locally appreciated," observed The Sun in the 1991 article.

Changes came rapidly and often, with some resistance from an entrenched staff used to doing things the old way.

He terminated the practice of custodial care and the warehousing of longtime patients. He got Sheppard Pratt involved in Employee Assistance Programs and established an adolescent unit that features an accredited school for students.

In 1965, he established the first public community mental health center in the nation sponsored by a private psychiatric hospital.

"It became a model of community health care," Dr. Sharfstein said.