Robert Franklin Pitts


Honorary Degree (1976)
Doctor of Science
Location: Indianapolis
Presenter: John William Ryan


Robert Franklin Pitts was one of America's most distinguished physiologists in teaching, research, and administration. A native of Indianapolis, Dr. Pitts was born October 24, 1908. He graduated from Shortridge High School and then went on to receive a B.S. degree from Butler University ('29), a Ph.D. in biology from Johns Hopkins University ('32), and an M.D. from New York University ('38). He taught at Johns Hopkins, New York University, Cornell University Medical College, and the Syracuse University College of Medicine.

After graduating from Johns Hopkins in 1932, Dr. Pitts joined the Department of Physiology at the New York University College of Medicine, where he was an active and productive researcher until 1938. It was during this time that he completed his M.D. degree from NYU.

Upon graduation from medical school in 1938, as a fellow of the Rockefeller Foundation, he spent one year at Northwestern University in the laboratory of Magoun and Ranson, and the subsequent year, as a K. R. Johnson Foundation fellow, in the Johnson Foundation laboratories at the University of Pennsylvania with Detlev Bronk. In 1940 he returned, as an assistant professor, to the Department of Physiology at NYU. For two years he continued his studies on the control of respiration, and then, in 1942, moved a short distance up the east side of Manhattan to join the Department of Physiology at Cornell University Medical College. Since the expense of establishing a new neurophysiology laboratory there was not attainable, he decided to return to the study of the kidney. Dr. Pitts considered these four years at Cornell a period of productivity that included some of his best work. In 1946, Pitts assumed the chairmanship of the Department of Physiology at Syracuse University (the school of medicine that subsequently became the State University of New York Upstate Medical Center). In 1950, Pitts returned to Cornell as the chairman of the Department of Physiology, a position he held until 1973, shortly before his retirement from the university in June 1974. In 1974, he accepted emeritus status at Cornell and moved to the University of Florida in Gainesville where he held the rank of Research Professor in Renal Medicine and Physiology, until his death in 1977.

Dr. Pitts' best known works include studies on the respiratory centers, on the ionic exchanges in the kidney, and on the alkaline reserves of the body. His outstanding contributions to the field of renal physiology are internationally recognized. In 1976, he was considered the leading authority on the function of the kidney in maintaining the integrity of the composition of the body. He was known for his clarity of thoughtful analysis of experiments, as well as for his attention to teaching and the development of new teaching methods.

Dr. Pitts received many awards and honors including the Adam T. Bruce Fellowship; the Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship of the Neurological Institute at Northwestern University (1938); the K. R. Johnson Foundation Fellowship (1939); the Gail Borden Award in Medical Science (1960); the Association of American Medical Colleges Award; the Medical Alumni Research Award of New York University (1962); the first Homer W. Smith Award in Renal Physiology (1963); an Honorary Master's Degree, Oxford, England (1967); the American College of Physicians Award for Distinguished Contributions in Science as Related to Medicine (1970); the Association of Chairmen of Departments of Physiology, First Annual Award for Distinguished Contributions to Physiology (1972); and the Honorary Fellowship Award, Cornell University Medical College Alumni Association (1972).

Dr. Pitts was a member of the National Academy Sciences and the American College of Physicians, and
active in other scientific organizations including the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; Study Section, NIH; National Research Council (NRC) Advisory Committee on the Army Medical Services Graduate School; Chairman, Renal Function, Josiah Macy Foundation; Advisory Board of the Life Insurance Medical Research Fund; Lederle Medical Faculty Awards Committee; NRC Medical Fellowships Awards Committee; American Physiological Society (Board of Publication Trustees, Member of Council; President, 1959); Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine; Harvey Society (President, 1960); Society for Clinical Investigation; and, the National Science Foundation

He was also a member of the following scholastic and scientific honorary fraternities: Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Xi, Phi Kappa Phi, Phi Delta Theta, and Alpha Omega Alpha.

Dr. Pitts died at the age of 68, on June 6, 1977, in Dowling Park, Florida.