An alumnus’ journey: doctor, inventor, and a founder of the UCSD medical school

Robert Hamburger is best-known for discovering the relationship between allergy inheritance and an immunoglobin in mothers and infants. He was also a founder of the medical school at the University of California, San Diego.
Robert Hamburger is best-known for discovering the relationship between allergy inheritance and an immunoglobin in mothers and infants. He was also a founder of the medical school at the University of California, San Diego.
Melissa Jacobs

When Robert Hamburger, M.D. ’51, HS ’54, was a newly minted University of North Carolina graduate, he planned to become a journalist. Although his career took a very different path—one that led him to become a physician, inventor, and medical school founder—Hamburger never lost his ear for the telling anecdote or colorful quote.

On the subject of deciding to become a doctor, he said, “I used to baby-sit for our family doctor’s two kids. I would sneak into his office to look at his books, mostly to look at the sex pictures, but it left me with a genuine interest in medicine.”

On religion: “During my first interview at the medical school, the interviewer asked me about my religion, and I told him I was an atheist. Knowing I’d served in the war (Hamburger was a P-38 pilot during World War II), he said, ‘There are no atheists in foxholes.’ I told him that was a load of crap; I became an atheist when I saw what human beings do to each other.”

And on the death of two of his three daughters from cancer: “It was very tough. I’ve saved a large number of very sick patients in my career, but I couldn’t save my own kids. I have quite a strong ego, but that gave me a good sense of humility.”

Hamburger is best-known for discovering the relationship of allergy inheritance and IgE (one of the five immunoglobulins humans have in their bodies) in mothers and infants, inventing a high-efficiency particulate filter to aid children with asthma, and helping to launch the University of California School of Medicine in La Jolla. He credits his training at Yale, especially studying under the Yale system, for his success on all these fronts. The Yale approach, with its emphasis on research-based medicine in a noncompetitive environment, taught Hamburger the importance of questioning conventional wisdom and insisting on scientific evidence to support one’s hunches and beliefs.

“It became my model, the model that I operated on,” he said. “I would drive people crazy when I’d say, ‘That sounds kind of like hearsay. Is there any evidence to back it up?’ But that’s how I think; that was my training.”

Hamburger applied to the School of Medicine at the urging of his sister Evelyn, who had been accepted by the Yale School of Nursing. Without the support of his wife, Sonia, to whom he’s been married for 67 years, he wouldn’t have made it through, he said. (Her support when he was missing in action during World War II also helped his parents get through that crisis.) After he completed his residency at Yale and at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, N.Y., he became the chief of pediatrics at Milford Hospital in Connecticut. “I was broke. I owed everybody money, so I worked 16- to 18-hour days, seven days a week, to get out of debt.” After four years, Hamburger returned to Yale to become a postdoc in the microbiology department. Six months later, in 1964, he followed his division chief, David M. Bonner, Ph.D., to the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). The timing was fortuitous, as UCSD was then launching a medical school and Hamburger was asked to sit on the advisory committee.

(Yale connections to UCSD are strong and deep. Former Dean Gerard N. Burrow, M.D. ’58, HS ’66, served as dean of the medical school there from 1986 to 1992. Nobel laureate George E. Palade, M.D., left Yale in 1990 to become the first dean of scientific affairs at UCSD. The current dean of the medical school at UCSD is David A. Brenner, M.D. ’79, HS ’82.

Drawing on his experience at Yale, Hamburger recommended the aspects of his Ivy League education he valued most, while rejecting “the stuffiness and formality.” That meant no competition and no grades at the new school. The school should be small, and students should be required to complete a thesis based on original research in order to graduate.

His suggestions were well-received, and Hamburger was encouraged to stay on, first as assistant dean for faculty and curriculum affairs, and later as head of the school’s Pediatric Immunology and Allergy Division and as assistant dean of the medical school. He became a professor emeritus in 1990.

Throughout his career Hamburger’s work has focused on allergic diseases and their impact on children’s health. In the late 1990s he developed an allergen detector system to help children with asthma sleep more soundly. “Sunbeam bought the rights, but then they went belly up,” he said. “I still have samples of that device in my closet. It was the one effort in my life to try to get rich.”

More successful was his collaboration with Nestlé, the Swiss food and confectionery company, which asked Hamburger to serve on its advisory board to help promote its baby formula. Hamburger said he would participate only if the company helped him spread the word about the benefits of breast feeding, which include later resistance to allergies. “Our message was ‘breast is best, but if you can’t nurse or you need to supplement, use Nestlé baby formula.’ ”

Now well into his retirement, Hamburger has returned to his first vocational love—writing. He and his granddaughter Toya are collaborating on a collection of short stories that will constitute his autobiography. Tentatively titled Autobiography: A Long Life in Short Story, it is about 25 pages long, but promises to grow much longer.

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