Former UNMC Chancellor Robert Sparks, M.D., dies

July 02, 2014

Image with caption: Robert Sparks, M.D., stands outside a conference room named in his honor inside the Harold M. and Beverly Maurer Center for Public Health at UNMC.

Robert Sparks, M.D., stands outside a conference room named in his honor inside the Harold M. and Beverly Maurer Center for Public Health at UNMC.

Robert Sparks, M.D., the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s second chancellor (1972-1976), died Tuesday, July 1, in California following several months of declining health. He was 82.

An accomplished speaker in the fields of internal medicine, gastroenterology, alcohol and drug addictions and health planning policy, Dr. Sparks also held the position of vice president of the University of Nebraska system. 

"He was a thoughtful administrator and a visionary whose programs greatly outlasted his tenure," said Robert Wigton, M.D., professor, department of internal medicine. "At a time of relative physician shortage, he worked hard to increase the number of UNMC graduates staying in the state in primary care practice."

His most lasting achievement, Dr. Wigton said, was to champion a bill in the Nebraska legislature that provided funding for training in family practice and other primary care fields. This bill, passed in 1975, continues to provide a significant part of the funding for UNMC's resident training today.

Said Dr. Wigton: "Even after he left UNMC, he worked to provide grants for programs in health care education in Nebraska. Dr. Sparks was a quiet man who worked behind the scenes to get his programs done. He was always a gentleman and cared about the Medical Center and its people."

As UNMC chancellor, Dr. Sparks oversaw the construction of the College of Pharmacy building to accommodate its move from Lincoln. He also presided over the construction of the College of Nursing, the Nebraska Lion’s Eye Institute, and the Clinic (ambulatory care) Building and the opening of the Eppley Science Hall. In 1976, he created the UNMC Board of Counselors, a group of advisors to the medical center focusing on long-range planning and goal setting.

The Newton, Iowa, native received his bachelor’s degree (1955) and medical degree (1957) from the University of Iowa.  He completed his residency in internal medicine and gastroenterology at Tulane University in New Orleans and interned at the Charity Hospital of Louisiana in New Orleans.

In 1958, Dr. Sparks joined the Tulane faculty and quickly rose through the ranks. In 1969 he became dean of the Tulane School of Medicine. During his time in Louisiana, he was director of the Louisiana Heart Association and the Louisiana Cancer Society.

Following his tenure at UNMC, he became program director of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. He was named vice president of programming in 1981 and president from 1982-88. In 1995, he became president and CEO of the California Medical Association Foundation, a position he held until his retirement in 1998.

Dr. Sparks received multiple honors over the years including:

As a member of the Council on Medical Education of the American Medical Association, he visited medical school campuses and analyzed their programs. In 1988, he was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Sparks continues to aid students at UNMC through several funds: The Chancellor Robert D. Sparks, M.D. Award in Public Health and Preventive Medicine; The Chancellor Robert D. Sparks, M.D. Public Health Research Award; and the Chancellor Robert D. Sparks, M.D. Pre-Professional Student Scholarship in Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.

Dr. Sparks, who lived in El Dorado Hills, Calif., was impressed with the growth of the UNMC campus. “It’s something we would never have imagined the scope of in the 1970s -- just like we can't imagine the scope today of what it will be in 2025,” he said during a 2005 visit.

What others are saying:

Bob Bartee, vice chancellor for external affairs

“Although I never had the pleasure of working directly with Bob, I came to respect him immensely. He was the right leader for a fledgling campus at the right time in its history. Bob was a caring person who demonstrated in his life’s work a passion for promoting population-based health. He will be missed.”

Robert Wigton, M.D., professor, department of internal medicine

“Robert Sparks followed Cecil Wittson as the second chancellor of the medical center.  He was a thoughtful administrator and a visionary whose programs greatly outlasted his tenure. At a time of relative physician shortage, he worked hard to increase the number of UNMC graduates staying in the state in primary care practice.  His most lasting achievement was to champion a bill in the Nebraska legislature that provided funding for training in family practice and other primary care fields.  This bill, passed in 1975, continues to provide a significant part of the funding for our resident training today. Even after he left UNMC in 1976 to join the Kellogg Foundation, he worked to provide grants for programs in health care education in Nebraska. Dr. Sparks was a quiet man who worked behind the scenes to get his programs done.  He was always a gentleman and cared about the Medical Center and its people.”

Jane Meza, professor and chair of the department of biostatistics and director of the Center for Collaboration on Research, Design and Analysis in the UNMC College of Public Health

“Dr. Sparks has been a strong supporter of the College of Public Health and our public health community. He was a true innovator and we will miss our dear friend. We will be forever thankful for the ‘Sparks Awards’ that he developed to recognize our current and future leaders in public health.”

Through world-class research and patient care, UNMC generates breakthroughs that make life better for people throughout Nebraska and beyond. Its education programs train more health professionals than any other institution in the state. Learn more at unmc.edu and follow us on social media.

Twitter  |  Facebook  |  Pinterest  |  YouTube