Dr. Howard A. Rusk

Howard A. Rusk: the father of rehabilitative medicine

November 20, 2015
At a time when the medical community paid little to no attention to the disabled, it was Dr. Howard A. Rusk who pioneered a field that focused on improving the quality of life for this patient population. In his autobiography, Rusk wrote that, “to believe in rehabilitation is to believe in humanity.” Today, he is known as the father of modern rehabilitative medicine.
Rusk was born in Brookfield, Missouri, on April 9, 1901. His interest in medicine started at an early age, when he began to spend his free time shadowing a local doctor. In exchange for cleaning the physician’s medical tools and supplies, Rusk watched him perform surgical procedures and tagged along to patient visits.
In 1921, Rusk enrolled at the University of Missouri. When his family came upon some hard financial times following World War I, he worked two jobs to finish his degree. In college, Rusk joined Phi Delta Theta, a fraternity chapter that happened to employ an amputee. Rusk worked with his classmates to raise some funds to buy the staff member a prosthetic leg. He later wrote that this particular experience helped him solidify his interest in working with the disabled.
Rusk went on to earn his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania, then got married, and spent some time working and teaching at the Washington University Medical School in St. Louis. When World War II broke out, Rusk was appointed chief of medical services at a base in St. Louis with the U.S. Army Air Corps. In this role, he saw many wounded and disabled men confined to their beds. He soon developed a comprehensive rehabilitation program to help soldiers get back to military and civilian life. The program included physical therapy, mental health services and educational courses in a variety of subjects, including accounting, radio mechanics and business. Rusk’s program quickly grew in popularity and was soon implemented throughout the military.
Despite his success within the military, many of his colleagues in the medical community didn’t find Rusk’s focus on rehabilitation to be a worthwhile pursuit. But it turned out that he only needed the help of one prominent supporter — The New York Times owner and publisher Arthur Sulzberger. As someone who suffered from severe arthritis, Sulzberger was sympathetic to Rusk’s efforts and gave him the opportunity to write a weekly column about rehabilitative medicine and other medical topics in his newspaper. Rusk authored the weekly column for more than 20 years.
The column caught the attention of many wealthy individuals who helped Rusk establish an institute dedicated to rehabilitative medicine at New York University. Many patients who suffered a stroke, an amputation or were paralyzed in an accident sought the care of Rusk and his staff. He also treated famous patients, such as the Brooklyn Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella. The athlete underwent much physical therapy after a major accident and regained the use of his arms.
Rusk also established the first medical training program for aspiring medical professionals who wanted to specialize in rehabilitative medicine. In 1955, he founded the World Rehabilitation Fund, an organization that, to this day, exists to improve the lives of disabled people all over the world. As a pioneer and expert in rehabilitative medicine, Rusk served as an advisor to a number of U.S. presidents, as well as the United Nations. He earned numerous accolades for his work, including a Nobel Peace Prize nomination. Rusk died on Nov. 4, 1989, from stroke-related complications. He is buried in Missouri. The University of Missouri named its rehabilitative center after Rusk, one of its most prominent and accomplished alumni.