Robert Uretz, former professor and dean, 1924-2018

Robert Uretz

Robert B. Uretz, PhD — an undergraduate and graduate student at the University of Chicago who became a professor, chairman of biophysics, and dean of the Biological Sciences Division and the Pritzker School of Medicine — died on Friday, September 14, 2018 in Chicago. He was 94 years old.

Although Uretz had a promising early career in science, he also had a real talent for organization and management. This gradually pulled him away from the laboratory and into a series of crucial administrative positions.

His most influential role was serving for six years as dean of the Division of the Biological Sciences and the Pritzker School of Medicine and vice president for the Medical Center from December 1, 1977 to December 31, 1983. He was one of the rare leaders of major U.S. medical schools who did not have a medical degree.

He accepted the job at a difficult time. In 1977, a hospital-wide task force reported a “massive backlog of needed renovations plus chronic shortages of space for both patient care and academic needs.”

A feasibility study, distributed in February 1978, emphasized the widespread poverty of the hospitals’ primary service area. The Medical Center, it noted, had the highest percentage of Medicaid admissions of any major teaching hospital in the country.

Additional challenges were the gradual population decline throughout much of South Side of Chicago, the shortage of space and resources within the University hospitals, inefficient organization of inpatient units, hospital costs that exceeded most comparable institutions, and a “lack of reliable management and productivity.”

In 1980, Uretz and colleagues formalized plans to improve the efficiency of care within the Medical Center and began raising the funds needed to expand and modernize the clinics in order to improve the inpatient care experience. The need for more and better clinical space ultimately led to the construction of the 468-bed Bernard Mitchell Hospital, which opened in 1983.

Research in biophysics

Robert Benjamin Uretz was born in Chicago on June 27, 1924, to Lottie (Kaplan) and Sol A. Uretz. He attended the local public schools and graduated from John Marshall Metropolitan High School, in the East Garfield Park neighborhood of Chicago,in 1943.

His education was interrupted by World War II. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force soon after completing high school. He rose through the ranks to First Lieutenant. During this period, he participated in meteorological and cosmic ray research for the military, assisting on flights to Alaska and South America.

He left the Army in early 1946 and resumed his education at the University of Chicago. He graduated early from the College, in 1947, with a bachelor’s degree in physics. He completed his PhD in biophysics in 1954 and joined the biophysics faculty as an instructor later that year. He was promoted to assistant professor in 1957, associate professor in 1961 and professor in 1964. Except for a few summers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and sabbaticals at Stanford and in London in the 1960s, he never really left.

Biophysics faculty, 1964
UChicago biophysics faculty, 1964. Top: Bob Haselkorn, Bob Uretz, Ed Taylor, Peter Geiduschek, Bob Haynes; Bottom: William Bloom, Ray Zirkle and John Platt, a physics professor.

The Department of Biophysics grew out of the Institute for Radiobiology and Biophysics. It was established in 1945 as a continuation of the Manhattan Project. Uretz served as department chairman from 1966 to1969 and was honored with the Ralph W. Gerard Professorship in 1972.

“Biophysics was a small but intense department,” according to Uretz’s colleague, Robert Haselkorn, PhD, a Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the biological sciences. “In the early ‘60s, the core department included only seven members, five of whom were, or later became, members of the National Academy of Sciences.”

As a new faculty member, Uretz’s laboratory worked on the development of “microbeams.” These were tiny focused blasts of protons or ultraviolet light, as small as one micron in diameter.

The beams were used to disrupt one component of a cell. They were often aimed at part of a single chromosome.

“It was very clever, very thoughtful, well done work,” said Peter Geiduschek, PhD, a University of Chicago biophysics professor at the time, and a University of California at San Diego professor emeritus, currently at Stanford. “But it did not,” as he phrased it, “turn out to be the main path to understanding the structure and function of the genetic material and its repair from damage suffered as a consequence of chemical processes and radiation.”

Kind, diplomatic and thoughtful

Instead, Uretz was gradually lured into administrative roles. He was chosen as associate dean for the Division of Biological Sciences in 1969 and deputy dean of the Medical School in 1970. In 1976 he was promoted to associate vice president for the Medical Center, followed by his six years as the dean. After his deanship, he served as interim dean of students at the University (1987-1988).

When he was still a graduate student, Uretz married an artist, Violet (Vi) Fogle Uretz (1916-2007), also a University of Chicago alum, on June 30, 1955. She exhibited her paintings, often documenting the effects of urban renewal, across the United States. They had two children: Jane Elizabeth (Uretz) Miller and the late Alan Daniel Uretz.

According to his daughter, Uretz was devoted to his family. “He delighted in keeping up with the activities and interests of several generations,” she said. “Kind, diplomatic, and a thoughtful listener, he engaged people with his wide range of interests and quiet sense of humor.”

He was also, “just a very good guy,” said colleague Haselkorn. “He was really nice, thoughtful, always fair.”

Uretz spent his final 12 years at Montgomery Place, a continuing care retirement community near the University. Thanks to his administrative skills, he was elected president of the residents’ council and participated in various discussion and support groups.

He is survived by his daughter Jane Miller; two daughters-in-law, Jennifer Uretz and Marybeth Uretz; three grandsons and two great-grandsons.