Henry Betts Obituary - Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago

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Celebrating the life of

Henry B. Betts, MD


Henry B. Betts, MD

Henry Brognard Betts, MD, internationally revered champion for people with disabilities and a leader in transforming physical medicine and rehabilitation from a minor discipline to an essential healthcare specialty, passed away on January 4, 2015  in Chicago, IL. He was 86.

“He passed away peacefully at our home after a long illness,” said his wife Monika Betts.

During a career at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) that spanned more than three decades, in 1991 Dr. Betts guided the hospital to the #1 ranking in its field by U.S. News & World Report, a ranking it retains today, 24 years later. Aligning with his pioneering medical career, Dr. Betts devoted himself to improving quality of life for people with disabilities, building public acceptance of physically challenged citizens and advocating for their rights.

Dr. Betts joined the RIC staff as an attending physician in 1963, a decade after its founding by Paul B. Magnuson, MD, former chief medical director of the Veterans Administration. Two years later, Dr. Betts was named medical director of RIC, a position he would hold for the following 29 years. He also served as president and chief executive officer from 1986 to 1997.

When Dr. Betts arrived at RIC, there were three attending physicians and 15 inpatients. Today, 62 attending and 145 consulting physicians with RIC are caring for 52,000 patients annually throughout its system care. Dr. Betts laid the foundation upon which RIC achieved this substantial institutional growth.

Dr. Betts also established RIC as the leading academic and research hospital of its kind. Medical students from Northwestern University began to study at RIC the year after Dr. Betts arrived. In 1967 he was appointed chairman of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PMR) at what is now the university’s Feinberg School of Medicine, and played a leading role in establishing the residency program in PMR at RIC. The same year, RIC launched its first research projects, and Dr. Betts and Dr. Ali A. Khalili, RIC’s first scientist, co-authored and published the results.

Today, RIC runs Northwestern’s medical school and residency programs in PMR, the top program of its kind in the country. RIC-trained physicians practice and are leaders at institutions across the country and around the world. Moreover, RIC’s Searle Rehabilitation Research Institute is now the largest, most prestigious research program of its kind in the world, with $85 million in multi-year federal research grants.

In 1974 Dr. Betts led ranks of patients, staff, dignitaries and benefactors through the streets of Chicago to the new RIC flagship hospital at 345 East Superior Street. The 20-story building was the first-ever hospital designed as a comprehensive center for patient care, education and research in physical medicine and rehabilitation.

His groundbreaking accomplishments as a physician and healthcare leader also drove Dr. Betts’ highly visible role as an advocate. He recognized that the challenges facing people with disabilities were not solely medical. At early turning points in his life, he confronted the social and economic barriers and ostracism that historically limited the quality of life for people with disabilities. These formative experiences strengthened his resolve that “with appropriate care, people with disabilities can be productive citizens, can be reintegrated into society, will require much less support from our society, and can feel the exhilaration of real freedom and equality.”

To these ends Dr. Betts committed endless professional and personal time and energy. In 1976, with the backing of Dr. Betts and Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, RIC launched an intensive Injury Prevention Program aimed at reducing the nation’s incidence of preventable injuries. In 1979 Dr. Betts was pivotal in founding RIC’s Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago, an organization which continues today as an independent non-profit that remains in the vanguard of the disability rights movement.

With the goal of enabling easier mobility for people in wheelchairs, Dr. Betts prevailed with Mayor Richard J. Daley to introduce curb cuts to the city, an idea realized in Chicago well before curb cuts were mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. In 1981, long a supporter of legislation securing the rights of people with disabilities, Dr. Betts appealed to Dr. C. Everett Koop, who was on the brink of becoming U.S. Surgeon General. “I know that it is debated whether the federal government or the states should manage the affairs of the disabled,” wrote Dr. Betts, “… but I can’t help but think that a national ‘presence,’ at least in respect to policy, is not an important goal to achieve.”

Tall of stature and graced with movie-star good looks, Dr. Betts deployed his charisma and commanding presence to educate the unconvinced medical community and the warier general public. “There was a very large world out there that needed to be educated about the role people with disabilities could play,” Dr. Betts explained. “Prejudice against them was a real ignorance, and not allowing for full integration into all high-quality-of-life aspects of America (and eventually employment) was folly for the patient, all citizens, and for the ‘American Way.’”

Born on May 25, 1928, in New Rochelle, N.Y., Dr. Betts was raised in New Jersey and Florida. He received his bachelor’s degree from Princeton University in 1950 and his MD degree from the University of Virginia in 1954. After his medical internship and service in the U.S. Marine Corps, he entered a residency under the mentorship of Howard Rusk, MD, at New York University’s Institute for Rehabilitation Medicine.

Dr. Rusk is regarded today as the “father of rehabilitation,” and his Institute, established in 1948, was renamed The Rusk Institute in 1984. Dr. Rusk’s Institute was the first university-affiliated center devoted to the then fledgling field. He was entrepreneurial in marketing and fundraising, and in addition to offering his medical expertise, he educated the young Dr. Betts about the diverse responsibilities of institution-building. It was Dr. Rusk who assigned Dr. Betts to care for Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy after Ambassador Kennedy’s stroke in 1961, an assignment through which Dr. Betts formed lasting ties with the Kennedy family, especially with Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy.

When Dr. Betts joined the staff of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, Senator Kennedy introduced him to Senator Charles Percy, former president of Bell & Howell Corporation. Dr. Betts developed close relationships with a number of the city’s “first families,” including Gaylord Donnelley, president and chairman of R. R. Donnelley & Sons Company, and his wife, Dorothy. John G. Searle, chairman of G. D. Searle & Company, became an important early supporter of RIC research. Through Dr. Betts’ personal and professional network — crossing every level of society — he communicated the importance of RIC to its home city, the nation and the international community.

In 1989, on his 25th anniversary as RIC medical director, Dr. Betts’ service in the field of physical medicine and rehabilitation was honored by the Prince Charitable Trusts, which established the Henry B. Betts Award for “extraordinary individuals throughout the world who work diligently and creatively on behalf of people with disabilities.” Between 1990 and 2009, the Betts Award was presented annually to distinguished recipients reflecting the broad landscape dedicated to treatment and care for people with disabilities, quality-of-life issues and rights for people with disabilities.

“Henry Betts saw the big picture,” said Dr. Joanne C. Smith, current RIC president and CEO. “He understood the potential of physical medicine and rehabilitation to make people with disabilities better, stronger, more capable of pursuing productive and fulfilling lives. And he believed with all his heart that people with disabilities should be allowed to live their lives in our society, as fellow citizens, to the greatest extent of their Ability. We will carry with us into the future his innovative leadership and social advocacy.”

Dr. Betts is survived by his beloved wife, Monika, sister Marguerite Betts King, daughter Amanda Betts Moore, son-in-law Trevor Moore and granddaughter Lucia Moore.

Memorial Service
Friday, January 16, at 11:00 a.m.
Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago
126 East Chestnut Street
Chicago, IL 60611

Reception and Celebration immediately following
The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago
345 East Superior Street
Chicago, IL 60611
(12th Floor)