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Obituary: Robert C. Strunk, professor of pediatrics, 73

Renowned pediatric allergist worked to better understand asthma and its triggers

by Kristina SauerweinMay 2, 2016


Robert Charles Strunk, MD, a beloved and acclaimed pediatric allergist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, died Thursday, April 28, 2016, in his native Chicago. He was 73.

Strunk, the Donald B. Strominger Professor of Pediatrics, died of cardiac arrest while visiting with family.

“Bob was an internationally renowned pediatric allergist and investigator,” said Gary A. Silverman, MD, PhD, the Harriet B. Spoehrer Professor and head of the Department of Pediatrics. “He was a magnanimous colleague and a beloved mentor to countless younger faculty and trainees.”

For almost three decades, Strunk worked in his lab at the School of Medicine, developing a productive clinical and research program for childhood asthma that significantly enhanced the understanding of the natural history of the disease and what triggers it.

During those years, Strunk treated patients at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, where he was the inaugural director of the Division of Pediatric Allergy and Pulmonary Medicine. He kept in touch with many of the families he met, occasionally attending wedding and graduation ceremonies of children he once treated.

“An academic role model for so many, Bob dedicated his life to improving the health of children with asthma, especially those who are most vulnerable in society,” said his longtime friend and colleague Thomas W. Ferkol, MD, the Alexis Hartmann Professor and director of the Division of Allergy, Immunology and Pulmonary Medicine in the pediatrics department. “He was the conscience for his division and department, always asking how we can better serve the children and families who depend on us.”

Born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, Strunk’s early interests influenced his medical career. Described in a 2000 Washington People profile as an asthmatic, “smart, quiet child always interested in bird watching, science and human nature,” Strunk looked beyond science when treating patients, particularly children with asthma.

“I’ve always been interested in what happens psychologically to children with chronic illnesses,” Strunk said in the article.

Indeed, his research findings reflect the association between emotional well-being and chronic asthma; for example, Strunk discovered that familial conflict and parental neglect can worsen a child’s asthma.

Additionally, Strunk’s research focused on a long-term interest in fatal asthma, including the disease’s role in children with sickle cell disease.

For decades, Strunk followed children with asthma into adulthood as part of the Childhood Asthma Management Program (CAMP), for which he was a director.

Janae Smith, a Washington University nurse and a former patient of Strunk’s, recalls suffering a respiratory arrest while in the CAMP study. “I remember how Dr. Strunk was always there,” Smith said. “He and his staff rarely left my side, and he was very reassuring and calming for my parents. After I was released from the hospital, in between my follow-up visits, he always called to ensure that I was doing well. My parents adored him.

“Dr. Strunk was the most gracious, caring and passionate doctor I ever met. I trusted him with my life.”

Strunk also had active roles within the Pediatric Asthma Clinical Research Network and the Childhood Asthma Research and Education Network.

Strunk earned all of his degrees from Northwestern University: a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1964 and his medical degree and a master’s in biochemistry in 1968.

He completed a pediatric internship and residency at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and then was drafted into the military. During the Vietnam War, he served as a pediatrician at a naval hospital in Newport, R.I. until 1972.

After his service, Strunk concurrently completed two fellowships in 1974, at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital. He then moved to the southwestern United States, where he was an assistant professor of pediatrics at Arizona Health Sciences Center for four years.

Starting in 1978, Strunk held numerous positions, including director, at the National Jewish Center for Immunology and Respiratory Medicine in Denver, and he was a professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado Medical Center.

He began working at Washington University in 1987. Besides clinical research and treating patients, Strunk proved pivotal in enlisting the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to support several national pediatric asthma initiatives. Improving the health of asthmatic children in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods was deeply important to him. For example, Strunk was instrumental in establishing the Healthy Kids Express, a fully equipped and staffed mobile clinic that provides asthma care for children in underserved communities in Missouri.

A member of the American Thoracic Society and the American Academy of Asthma, Allergy & Immunology, Strunk received dozens of prestigious awards throughout his career, including the Allergic Disease Academic Award for five consecutive years from the American Board of Allergy and Immunology.

Strunk published scores of articles and abstracts in medical journals, including The New England Journal of Medicine, where a new study of his is scheduled for publication this spring.

Strunk is survived by his wife of 18 years, Juanita Strunk; two children, Chris Strunk and Alix Strunk; two stepchildren, Rick Macivor and Ellen Royal; and nine grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held from 6:30-9 p.m. Saturday, May 21, in the Living World at the Saint Louis Zoo.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Strunk Family Lectureship in Asthma, which annually brings experts in fields related to allergy and asthma to Washington University for lecture and discussion.  It was established in 2005 by Strunk and his wife and children in honor of Strunk’s parents, Norman and Marion Strunk, who had keen intellectual curiosity and supported their son’s academic work enthusiastically. Memorial gifts may be directed to the Strunk Family Lectureship in Asthma; Dr. Gary Silverman, Department of Pediatrics; 
Washington University; 660 S. Euclid Avenue, 
Campus Box 8116; 
St. Louis, Mo. 63110.

Kristina covers pediatrics, surgery, medical education and student life. In 2020, she received a gold Robert G. Fenley Writing Award for general staff writing from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), and in 2019, she received the silver award. Kristina is an author and former reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Los Angeles Times, where she was part of a team of journalists that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for breaking news. Additionally, she covered the 2014 Ferguson unrest for TIME magazine and, for eight years, wrote a popular parenting column for