A Champion for Newborns Loyal Davison Club Donor Remembers Duke Fondly

R. Rodney Howell, MD’57, HS’57-’60 has dedicated his career to advancing the screening of newborns to diagnose potentially harmful conditions. The pediatrician’s mission has taken him all over the world, from Mongolia (where the current president of the International Society of Neonatal Screening arranged a side trip to meet a herd of yaks), to Brazil, where he was stranded for several days, unable to get home to check the damage done to his South Florida home by Hurricane Irma. (Turns out, the tidal surge wiped out the inside of the entire first floor.) Within the U.S., there were career stops in Bethesda, Baltimore, Houston, and, finally, Miami.

Howell credits his career path to his experiences at Duke and has been a steadfast member of the Davison Club giving society for decades. His first mentors included Dean Wilburt Davison, MD, Department of Pediatrics Chair Jerome Harris, MD, and Department of Medicine Chair Eugene Stead Jr., MD.

“The medical school was so small at that time that we got to work very closely with the unbelievably bright, talented faculty,” Howell recalls. “They provided tremendous support.”

When Howell became interested in metabolism (this was before genetics existed as a field), he went to Stead for advice. “He said, ‘You’re really in luck because I’ve just hired this great guy from the National Institutes of Health who is the world expert in metabolism!’”

Robert HowellThat expert was James B. Wyngaarden, MD, and Howell would spend the next two years at Wyngaarden’s side as an NIH fellow while finishing his pediatrics residency. After Duke, Howell spent several years at the NIH in Bethesda, then at Johns Hopkins, before being recruited to the University of Texas at Houston as chair of pediatrics. In 1989, he moved to the University of Miami, where he chaired the Department of Pediatrics for 15 years. In 2004, upon stepping down as chair, he was “loaned” to the NIH as a senior advisor to the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development. He is now back in Miami, although he remains very involved in efforts to improve newborn screening nationally and globally.

When Howell began his career, newborns had just started to be tested for phenylketonuria (PKU), based on the finding that early detection and treatment could preclude intellectual deficits. While virtually every baby in the U.S. was screened for PKU, states decided for themselves what else to test for, causing wide discrepancies in screening. In 2004, the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics convened a group that ultimately established the Recommended Uniform Screening Panel (RUSP). Howell was part of that group and was the first chair of a congressionally mandated committee to advise the Secretary of Health & Human Services on genetic testing of newborns.

Howell, who remains in touch with several classmates, was on the organizing committee this past year for the Class of 1957’s 60th reunion, where he got to regale old friends about his latest adventure travels…and his close encounters with yaks.

August 23, 2018

By Laura Ertel