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Dr. Robert Nelson Smith [1920-2014]; Top military doctor served Ford, Carter



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Dr. Robert Nelson Smith, a longtime Toledo-area anesthesiologist who as an assistant secretary of defense was the nation’s top military physician, died Jan 22 in Riverside Methodist Hospital in Columbus. He was 93.

He’d been in ill health recently, his daughter Sharon said. A longtime resident of Ottawa Hills, he lived in Upper Arlington, Ohio, with his wife, Joan Fulton Smith.

Dr. Smith was assistant secretary of defense for health and environment, appointed by President Gerald Ford and confirmed in August, 1976, by the U.S. Senate. He remained when President Jimmy Carter took office, resigning Jan. 1, 1978.

“He said it was the best job he ever had,” his wife said.

Dr. Smith, from his office along the third-floor E ring of the Pentagon — location of senior military officials — oversaw and coordinated a health-care system of 11,000 physicians; 5,000 dentists; 10,000 nurses; 186 hospitals; 210 clinics; a medical school, and a health insurance program.

“This has been a job of great interest and satisfaction,” Dr. Smith told The Blade as he was about to leave office, which carried a military rank equivalent to that of a four-star general.

“It’s a job that for the first time put together my education, experience, and 25 years of doctoring in a way that let me draw on each fully,” Dr. Smith told The Blade. During his time in office, he took a leave from the anesthesiology group at Toledo Hospital, with which he was affiliated.

President Ronald Reagan nominated Dr. Smith in June, 1981, to serve again in the top military medical position. Dr. Smith in December, 1981, asked that his name be withdrawn, citing unforeseen family responsibilities.

Dr. Smith, a Republican, was long active at the intersection of medicine, policy, and politics.

“He had a vision for where he thought medicine ought to go,” his daughter said. “He wanted to be able to affect that.”

He was a former officer of the Academy of Medicine of Toledo and Lucas County. He served in 1970 as president of the then-10,000 member Ohio State Medical Association. He was a member of the American Medical Association’s House of Delegates. He was a director of Ohio Medical Indemnity Co. He also was chairman of the Ohio Comprehensive Health Planning Advisory Council.

Gov. George Voinovich in 1996 appointed him to the Ohio Public Health Council.

“He had a penchant for excellence,” his wife said.

In the early 1970s, Dr. Smith helped champion a medical education program that became a standard nationwide, which allowed U.S.-born graduates of foreign medical schools an accelerated path to practice at home.

He was born April 2, 1920, to Amy and Robert F. Smith. His father was a pharmacist in Swanton, and his mother was involved with the Republican Party. At his 1938 graduation from Swanton High School, he received the two highest awards given to seniors. He’d begun studies at the University of Michigan when, in December, 1938, U.S. Rep. Frank C. Kniffin appointed him to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He was rated a flying officer and commissioned in the Air Corps.

He served stateside during World War II and taught pilots to fly. He also received a master’s degree in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He received his medical degree from the University of Nebraska.

His two brothers — Barton and Charles — also became physicians.

Dr. Smith had been a member of the Inverness Club. He enjoyed summer days at the Devils Lake, Mich., cottage that his family built when he was 3.

He and his wife, Marilyn, married in 1943. She died May 14, 1969.

Surviving are his wife, Joan Fulton Smith, whom he married March 30, 2005; daughters, Sandralyn Seidel, Sharon Coffin, Marilyn Kahle, Marcia Makings, and Elizabeth Ferguson; son, Robert N. Smith, Jr.; 15 grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.

The family will greet guests and share memories from 1-5 p.m. Saturday in the Schoedinger Northwest Chapel, Upper Arlington. Funeral services are pending at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

The family suggests tributes to the Long Gray Line Endowment Fund in care of the West Point Association of Graduates, West Point, N.Y.

Contact Mark Zaborney at: or 419-724-6182.

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