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Robert W. Wilmott, M.D.: 1948-2024

by Carrie Bebermeyer

Robert Wilmott, Relentless Optimist and Beloved Physician Who Led SLU School of Medicine During COVID-19 Pandemic, Dies at 75

Following a lengthy battle with cancer, Robert W. Wilmott, M.D., former dean of the Saint Louis University School of Medicine and vice president of medical affairs, died on Sunday, May 19, 2024. He was 75. 

Wilmott led SLU’s School of Medicine and SLUCare medical practice through the turbulent first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, punctuating a long career that included serving at the helm of SLU’s department of pediatrics. 

Robert Wilmott, M.D.
Robert Wilmott, M.D. SLU File Photo.

At a time when doctors and researchers were called to treat patients with a little-understood new virus, continue patient care for other medical issues, develop new COVID-19 vaccines, avoid interruptions to medical student training and ease the public’s fear and uncertainty about the new coronavirus, Wilmott provided steady leadership and an optimistic vision.

SLU President Fred P. Pestello, Ph.D., lauded Wilmott’s intellect, character and leadership during this challenging time.

"Dr. Wilmott was a skilled and compassionate physician and leader,” said Pestello. “He was also a remarkably warm and kind person.  

“Bob assumed leadership of our School of Medicine and clinical practice when they were in need of healing and direction. He provided both and more. His sharp intellect and gentle presence will have a lasting impact on his colleagues, his patients, and our University. Our prayers are with his devoted wife Cathy, his four daughters and their partners, and his five grandchildren."

Even as the pandemic persisted, Wilmott’s tenure as dean saw major milestones come to pass, including the opening of the new SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital, the Center for Specialized Medicine and the SLUCare Academic Pavilion, as well as the successful navigation of the School of Medicine’s accreditation process. 

Christine Jacobs, M.D., dean of SLU’s School of Medicine and vice president for medical affairs, remembers Wilmott’s instinct to communicate with members of the school community during the pandemic. 

“During COVID, he communicated very regularly,” Jacobs said. “He let everyone know he was thinking about us all of the time. He sent regular messages about topics he thought might interest us. He organized meetings to keep us all on track. He shepherded us through that very tumultuous time.”

It was Wilmott’s character that stood out.

“He was kind, honest and empathetic. He represented a true gentleman in every way. He was somebody who always had the best interest of his people at heart,” Jacobs said. “He is beloved in the School of Medicine.” 

“He was quite an intellectual. And, he never met anyone he couldn’t befriend.”

Born in London, Wilmott was the first member of his family to attend college, earning his medical degree from University College London in 1973. He also earned a research doctorate from the University of London, studying the impact of allergies on those suffering from cystic fibrosis.

Wilmott completed a fellowship at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital in the pediatric ICU, which is where he met his wife, Cathryn, who was working there as a nurse.

Wilmott’s career took him to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Wayne State University in Detroit, and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital where he served as director of the division of pulmonary medicine, allergy and clinical immunology.

In 2001, Wilmott was named chair of pediatrics at SLU School of Medicine and pediatrician-in-chief at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Hospital, and, in 2019, he was tapped to be dean of Saint Louis University School of Medicine and vice president of medical affairs, roles he held until his illness.

He never met anyone he couldn’t befriend."

Christine Jacobs, M.D.

Andrew White, M.D., the Robert W. Wilmott Endowed Chair of pediatrics at SLU, remembers Wilmott’s impact in the pediatric world and transformative leadership of SLU’s department of pediatrics.

“When he took over the department of pediatrics over two decades ago, there was much work to do. He put tremendous effort into every aspect of the job. He nearly doubled the number of faculty and size of the department. He recognized the importance of nurse practitioners and expanded their roles. He increased the residency class size. He created the Pediatric Clinical Trials Unit.”

Blake Noyes, M.D., professor of pediatrics in the division of pulmonology, dates his relationship with Wilmott from 1985. He recalls the way Wilmott’s attitude and demeanor helped him accomplish change in the department.

“His energy, his enthusiasm and his relentless optimism are the things that struck you,” Noyes said. “It’s hard to overstate what he accomplished. He launched so many programs and initiatives.

“When he began as department chair, he really wanted to strengthen the relationship between SLU and Cardinal Glennon, to get collaboration on track and to support the success of the hospital and the department of pediatrics.”

Noyes recounted how Wilmott recruited talented division directors, hired faculty and established many new programs, including a mentoring program for senior faculty to develop relationships with their junior colleagues. He also started and supported pediatric science days, a faculty development program, a hospitalist program, and worked with the Cardinal Glennon Foundation to create a program to garner recognition for pediatrics on a national level.

He’s the kind of person who would inspire you to want to be a better person." 

Andrew White, M.D.

The pediatrics department honors excellent educators with the Wilmott teaching award, given to standout faculty members who exemplify his dedication to learners. White described Wilmott as holding a particular gift for mentoring medical students and resident physicians.

“He was humble and he recognized that learning can be difficult,” White said. “He’d paraphrase Winston Churchill: ‘I loved to learn new things but I didn’t like being taught.’ Bob knew that it could be hard to be a student, and he made it easier by being approachable and down to earth. Learners sought him out.

“He’s the kind of person who would inspire you to want to be a better person. When you saw him behave so professionally and go above and beyond, it made you want to be like him. He put his needs second, third, fourth.”

Wilmott’s demeanor made pediatrics an easy fit.

“Even 25 years ago, Bob had a grandfatherly countenance,” White said. “He was always happy, and I think his young patients felt reassured by that. He was a natural born, innate pediatrician.”

Wilmott was an expert in cystic fibrosis. He was the author of many papers and served as an editor of the Journal of Pediatrics for 18 years. Wilmott published a regular “Healthy Kids” advice column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for many years.  

As a pediatric pulmonologist, he was an editor of one of the classic textbooks, regarded as a “bible” in the field. His name has been added to the most recent edition in recognition of his contribution as principal author of the textbook now known as Kendig and Wilmott’s Disorders of the Respiratory Tract in Children.

An avid equestrian, SCUBA-certified diver, saxophonist, skier, and traveler, Wilmott found time for hobbies and travel. He and his wife took many medical mission trips to Belize to provide care to those in need.

Wilmott is survived by his wife of 42 years, Cathryn Wilmott; his sister, Rosemary Wilmott; his four daughters, Jenny Wilmott (Adam Seehaver), Francesca Wilmott (Jim Stanley), Gina Reed (Nick Reed), and Annabelle Wilmott (Chad Cover); his five grandchildren, Audriana Gomez, Oona Stanley, Wilder Reed, James Stanley, and Clementine Reed; his aunt, and many dear nieces, nephews, and cousins; numerous grateful patients; and countless friends.

A memorial service will be held at 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 29, at St. Francis Xavier College Church. 

Read the family's obituary here.

In lieu of flowers, the Wilmott family suggests donations to:

Cardinal Glennon Children's Foundation

Dr. Robert Wilmott IMMUNO Chair in Pediatric Research fund

Cholangiocarcinoma Foundation