Robert M. Swenson, 84, formerly of Mount Airy, founding chief of the infectious diseases section at Temple University Health Sciences Center, professor emeritus of medicine and microbiology, author, lecturer and actor, has died Thursday, March 31 from pneumonia at Sutter Medical Center in Sacramento, Calif.
An authority on epidemics, pandemics, plagues and their social implications, Dr. Swenson was the founder and chief of Temple’s Infectious Diseases Section from 1969 to 1982. He was chairman of the AIDS Task Force of the science center from 1986 to 2005, board member of an AIDS nursing home and senior living center in Philadelphia, and an expert witness in court in cases of AIDS and other diseases infectious.
His 17-page 1988 essay, “Plagues, History, and AIDS,” has been published in American Scholar magazine and elsewhere around the world, translated into several languages, and noted as an important reference by other authors. “Infectious diseases have had a major influence on Western history,” he wrote.
His conclusion to the report was not reassuring. “Although our advanced biotechnology has allowed us to apply sophisticated solutions to the biological problems of AIDS, our human responses have changed little from previous epidemics and prevent us from effectively addressing many of the social problems that are part of the epidemic. of AIDS.”
During his 37-year career at Temple, Dr. Swenson has seen patients, taught students, shared research, and written or co-authored more than 40 articles and book chapters, many of which have led to improvements in medical procedures and social responses to disease and other problems. . “He particularly cherished his role as a teacher to future generations of doctors,” his family said in a tribute.
He has served on clinical, academic and administrative committees; lectured on public health policy and the moral taboos of illness; and articles reviewed for medical journals. He has earned research grants from the American Heart Association and was a member of the American Board of Medical Examiners and a Fellow of the College of Physicians in Philadelphia.
“Bob had the kind of broad-mindedness that appeals to intellectual amateurs,” said his friend, Philadelphia-based writer and editor Tom Purdom.
When he retired in 2005, Dr. Swenson turned to acting. He took classes at Temple and, using his keen sense of humor and talent for dramatic improvisation, landed roles in stage productions and independent films. His most memorable role was as an incompetent rival lawyer in television commercials for the law firm Lenahan & Dempsey.
For years thereafter, people who recognized Dr. Swenson from advertisements approached him and mimicked his acerbic, lengthy “Oh, noooon” catchphrase. “He had remarkable quick-wittedness,” said his wife, Jean. “And he loved being around young people.”
Born June 19, 1937, in Chicago, Dr. Swenson graduated from Northwestern University in 1959 and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis in 1963. He was an intern and resident at Barnes Hospital, now Barnes-Jewish Hospital, at the University of Washington. . He became an officer in the United States Public Health Service and earned fellowships at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland.
He did an infectious disease fellowship at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School before coming to Temple in 1969. He met Jean MacBryde on a blind date, married in 1961 and they had sons Kirk and Neil.
The family lived for a decade in West Philadelphia, and Dr. Swenson cycled across town to the Temple campus. They moved to Mount Airy in 1979, and he and his wife moved to Davis, California seven years ago.
Dr Swenson was a tennis star as a young man and later got so pissed off watching the Phillies, Eagles and 76ers that he had to tape the games, find out who won later and never watch only if his team won. He loved puzzles, and he, his wife, and his family spent summers in the Endless Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania.
He read books on economics, political history, sociology and Buddhism and embraced meditation. “He had a curious intellect,” his wife said. “He could see the big picture, but he was also good at the details.”
In addition to his wife and sons, Dr. Swenson is survived by four grandchildren, a sister and other relatives.
A private service in California is scheduled for Sunday, May 29. A service in Philadelphia is to be held later.
Donations in his name may be made to the American Civil Liberties Union, 125 Broad St., 18th Floor, New York, NY 10004, and the American Friends Service Committee, 1501 Cherry St., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19102.