MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – When Robert Nugent, M.D., followed a colleague from Cincinnati to Morgantown in 1961, he wasn’t quite sure what the future had in store. The Yonkers, N.Y., native was leaving an established department of neurosurgery to assume a leadership role at the newly dedicated “medical center on the hill,” the West Virginia University Health Sciences Center.

“In the early ‘60s, Morgantown was a dingy, dirty coal town,” Dr. Nugent said. “I had questions about whether I would stay here.”

Fifty years later and at 90 years old, Nugent remains in Morgantown, still seeing patients as a WVU faculty member in the Department of Neurosurgery.

“In 1961, I was thinking about the year 2000, and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I could be around for the year 2000?’ I thought, ‘You’ll be 80 years old, you’ll never make it.’ But I did, and I did it with ease.”

Nugent believes he is the only remaining member of the inaugural health sciences crowd still on the faculty. The list of changes he has witnessed and spearheaded is too long to list. Nugent played a pivotal role in the success of the Health Sciences Center and University Hospital, through growing pains and subsequent expansion.

“When I first came here, all of us were so dedicated to providing good patient care and service to the community … to prove that this medical center was worth it,” he said. “We did not even have a billing policy set up for almost a year. Finally, Dean (Clark) Sleeth said, ‘Listen guys, we’ve got to get together and get organized and set up a billing program.’”

“We were treating all these people without billing them, and a rumor got established that (then-Governor) Okey Patteson had built this new medical center with free care for the people of West Virginia.”

Nugent drafted the by-laws for the then-forming WVU Medical Corporation and served as chairman of its board for a decade, in addition to eventually chairing his department, a position he held until he turned 65. At the time, it was mandated that chairs must step down upon reaching “retirement age.” Not ready to hang it up, Dr. Nugent planned to keep teaching and practicing medicine until he turned 75, a milestone he again passed without leaving his career, patients or students.

“I have difficulty giving up,” he explained.

It seems WVU medical students would have a hard time letting him go, anyway. At one point, Nugent’s elective neurology series lectures were so popular, lotteries were held each semester to secure a spot in his class. Nugent says watching his students become inspired to pursue a career in the neurologic sciences has been most gratifying.

“It was interesting how many people came out of that and went into neuroradiology, neurology … several went into neurosurgery because that sparked an interest in them early on. So many people were interested in it, so many people profited from it. It lit a fire for a lot of people.”

Nugent still sees patients in clinic twice a week, and he is in his 45th year as a team physician for the WVU Mountaineer football team. When not working, Dr. Nugent can be found in the gym or on a tennis court.

In the end, he’s glad he stayed.

“Morgantown turned out to be a wonderful place to live, I love it. I have five kids; they all grew up here. Three of them are still here because they don’t want to leave. I’m a converted West Virginian.”

For more information: Leigh Limerick, HSC News Service, 304-293-7087
lal: 07-14-11