Remembering Rosenthal: 'People from all walks of life loved him'

Celebrated oncologist emphasized academics, family, joy of living

May 24, 2012 (published)
By Phyllis DeGioia; Jennifer Fiala

Photo courtesy of Dr. Karri Meleo
Dr. Bob Rosenthal was an avid lover of life. The board-certified oncologist died earlier this month while traveling to take part in one of his passions — fly fishing.

If one were to pen Dr. Bob Rosenthal’s memoirs, ‘Renaissance Man’ might be a fitting title.

The veterinary oncologist, friend and family man died suddenly May 5 of cadiovascular disease while heading to a fly-fishing site near Baltimore. He was 66.

Rosenthal was a heavyweight in veterinary oncology, but perhaps more significant was the impact he had on those who counted him as a mentor and friend throughout his 44 years as a veterinarian.

“What Bob really taught me is about the importance of life balance, that you can be an excellent veterinarian, but it’s also important to explore other things in life as well.”

That comes from Dr. Karri Meleo, who owns Animal Cancer Specialists in Seattle, where Rosenthal worked two days a week since 2010 when he moved to the area from Fairfax, Va. Meleo said Rosenthal didn’t relocate just for the job but to live closer to his family, including his grandchildren.

“ Personally, it was a great joy when he was able to come out here almost two years ago because I had known him as a friend,” she added.

Rosenthal is survived by his wife, Bobbie; children Leah, Sam and daughter-in-law, Ivy; and grandsons, Eli and Issac. His funeral was held May 9 in Buffalo, N.Y.

Rosenthal earned his DVM in 1968 from Michigan State University. During the next three years, he served the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps at the Gerontology Research Center in Baltimore, caring for what then was the oldest aging rat colony in the Western world.

In 1971, Rosenthal left public health service for full-time private practice. He built a veterinary clinic in Norton, Mass., and sold it seven years later. Soon after, Rosenthal embarked on an academic path toward specialization.

During the 1980s, Rosenthal earned diplomate status in small animal internal medicine as well as oncology from the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ACVIM). He became board certified by the American College of Veterinary Radiology in radiation oncology in 1996.

Rosenthal’s triple-boarded status was bolstered by other academic degrees, including a master’s he earned in veterinary clinical medicine in 1982 and a PhD in veterinary pathobiology that he received in 1985, both from the University of Illinois (UI). He went back to school two decades later to earn a master’s in environmental science, which he received in 2009 from George Mason University.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Jim Fingeroth
Dr. Bob Rosenthal poses with his wife of 42 years, Bobbie, in front of a fishing spot.

Dr. Philip Bergman, a board-certified oncologist, described his longtime friend and colleague as “an old-school academic” and the “consummate professional veterinarian.”

“Bob was a very remarkable individual on so many levels,” Bergman said. “He was one of the first to be doing bone marrow transplants in dogs that were clinically affected with disease. Many years ago that work was done in healthy dogs to learn more about human medicine, and he took it to dogs with leukemia and lymphoma at a time when nobody else was thinking about doing that. It was unfortunately way ahead of its time (and) we didn’t have a lot of the support mechanisms we take for granted today.”

Rosenthal also taught, intermittently lecturing on internal medicine and medical oncology at UI and the University of Wisconsin until 1991. According to those who knew him, Rosenthal was devoted to teaching students how to think critically in clinical environments. He also was known as a great mentor.

“I was a senior veterinary student at the University of Illinois when Dr. Rosenthal was on staff there,” said a veterinarian, writing in the guest book of Rosenthal’s online obituary. “While I had some difficulty relating on a personal level with other faculty, he and I seemed to connect, which helped me through a stressful time.”

Another former student said: “I still clearly remember Bob’s lectures on oncology from when I was a student at UW-Madison. He was a positive influence not only towards my career but also regarding his love of life.”

Upon leaving academia, Rosenthal took a job at Veterinary Specialists of Rochester in New York, where he practiced veterinary medicine for 11 years. During that time, he also had an adjunct appointment at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. In 2002, he left Rochester to work for SouthPaws Veterinary Referral Center in the Washington D.C. metro area. There, he practiced radiation oncology until 2010, when he moved to Seattle.

Throughout his career, Rosenthal’s work has been published in veterinary medical journals and textbooks, covering topics from bone marrow transplantation and innovative chemotherapy protocols to split course radiation therapy for mast cell tumors and the use of tumor markers to monitor response to therapy and relapse.

He served ACVIM on the Internal Medicine and Oncology Examination Committees as well as on the Organizing Committee for the Specialty of Oncology.

By all accounts, Rosenthal was exceptional at balancing his work life with his other passions: banjo playing, contra dancing, fly fishing, hiking and canoeing — all while spending time with friends and family.

“ He truly, truly loved fishing,” recalled Bergman, who was planning a fishing trip with Rosenthal to coincide with next year’s ACVIM conference in Seattle.

“He’s an unbelievably honest man,” Bergman said. “They don’t make ’em like him any more. We were all so impressed that he navigated work/life issues very well. I was beyond sad to hear of his passing.”

Dr. Greg Ogilvie, another board-certified oncologist, refers to Rosenthal by his self-imposed moniker: Coot, as in an eccentric, elderly person. Rosenthal often poked fun at himself, using the handle “OncoCoot” on emails and on message boards of the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), where he, along with Ogilvie and Bergman, served as a consultant to an online community of 49,000 members.

“Bob Rosenthal (Coot) was, as we all know, an avid fisherman, lover of the outdoors, his grandkids and wife, and an accomplished contra dancer,” said Ogilvie by email. “Indeed, everywhere we went, he found a contra dance to enjoy and a fish to entertain his fly rod.”

Dr. Jim Fingeroth, who worked with Rosenthal at Veterinary Specialists of Rochester, recalled the time he took Rosenthal to an emergency room, in pain with kidney stones: “I took him to the hospital, and while he was sitting ill, I filled out all the paperwork for the triage nurse. When she came to the question about ‘what is your relationship to the patient?,’ I innocently answered, ‘We’re partners.’ The humor of this struck us (and our wives) a short time later ...”

From then on, the two referred to each other as “pardners” or “pard,” for short. They expected to attend the 150th anniversary and reenactment of the battle of Gettysburg next summer in Pennsylvania. Fingeroth and his wife still plan to make the trip with Rosenthal’s wife, Bobbie, in their friend’s memory.

“Bob and I shared a gusto for wide-ranging interests and life-long learning in diverse fields,” Fingeroth said. “We also shared the same wry sense of humor. I can’t even imagine his not being there to jest with, make plans, exchange goofy but meaningful birthday and holiday presents, share stories and otherwise be more like brothers than anything else.”

Rosenthal became a member of VIN in 1992, a year after it was founded. By 1994, he was sharing his experiences and medical knowledge as one of the VIN oncology consultants, along with others including Meleo, owner of the Seattle specialty referral practice where Rosenthal worked part time. The two met about 20 years ago through VIN and Veterinary Cancer Society (VCS) meetings.

In 1999, Rosenthal brought a hammered dulcimer to a VCS meeting so Meleo could use it to play music with him.

“He could share a story but also listen well,” she said. “People from all walks of life loved him.”

Those who’d like to donate to the causes Rosenthal supported can do so in remembrance of him by contacting Trout Unlimited International, Jewish Family Service of Seattle and the Dr. Erwin Small Scholarship Endowment Fund.

Dr. Erwin Small was a large-than-life educator and mentor at the University of Illinois. When he died in 2009, Rosenthal was one of the first to speak out, using humor and warmth to remember his friend and colleague. 

“When I first arrived in Champaign, I was pretty sure that my 18-month-old daughter’s fascination with his bristled haircut and rotund middle would get me fired," Rosenthal said of an initial encounter with Small, relayed during an interview three years ago with the VIN News Service. “Instead, he took to her immediately. He was like a grandfather to my kids and would ask about them for many years afterward.

“We all will miss him greatly.”

Many who knew Rosenthal  likely are saying the same.

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