Robert Martenson

The Office of NIH History (ONH) mourns the loss of former director Robert L. Martensen, Ph.D., M.D.  Martensen came to NIH with a unique background:  he had been a physician in emergency rooms and intensive care units and a professor at Harvard Medical School and Tulane University .  As a professor, he taught both bioethics and medical history.  After Hurricane Katrina devastated Tulane, he left Louisiana for the NIH. 

Martensen was the second director of the Office of NIH History (2007-2012).  He greatly expanded the Stetten Fellow research program, which brings in post-docs in medical history to work on topics in specific institutes. While at ONH, Stetten Fellows work with scientific contacts in the institutes and publish articles and books and present lectures based on their research into NIH’s history.  Martensen was particularly concerned with mentoring the next generation of medical historians and worked closely with the Fellows to develop their research topics, skills, and output.  He also built up the office by adding an archivist and exhibit designer to the staff.

With wide-ranging research interests, Martensen published on several seemingly disparate topics.  For example, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship to complete his book The Brain Takes Shape: An Early History (2004).  He also wrote on 19th century theories of health and the environment in Restorative Commons: Creating Health and Well-being Through Urban Landscapes (2009).  But he is most widely known for his book A Life Worth Living: A Doctor’s Reflections on Illness in a High-Tech Era (2008).  He used patient cases, many in which he was a participating physician, to examine end-of-life care issues in the United States from the points of view of hospital administrators, patients, and physicians.  The book garnered great interest from both physician groups and patients and the media because of its frank depictions and discussions of the emotionally-fraught decisions that must be made at the end of someone’s life. 

Martensen’s varied qualities—empathy, intelligence, calmness, and ability to communicate—all of which made him a quality physician and historian, also made him a genuinely interested and interesting leader.  “He was easy to talk to about work and about personal issues,” says Michele Lyons.  “In that he was rare.”  He also collected art, and loved the opera, bicycling, traveling, and his three sons.

Martensen was born January 1, 1947, in Lake County , Ohio .  He received his B.A. from Harvard in 1969; M.D. from Dartmouth Medical School in 1974, and M.A. and Ph.D. from UC San Francisco in 1993.  He died September 26, 2013 in Pasadena , California .

For more information about his life and work, visit the following:

NRP Fresh Air interview

NYTimes interview

Dartmouth interview

A Life Worth Living description


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Last updated: 29 October 2013
First published: 2 February 2005
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