Robert A. Jahrsdoerfer (1930-2014): Scholar, Gentleman, and the Most Supportive Otolaryngologist an Audiologist Could Ever Ask For

RR, Bob, JJ & Jay

Roger Ruth, me, Bob, and John Jacobson. 2008 – University of Virginia.

Waiting for the Call

My good friend Roger Ruth (1950-2009) was about mid-way through his 30-year career as Director of Audiology at the University of Virginia when he called me one day in early 1982.  At the time I was seeing patients in the audiology clinic at the University of Pennsylvania as an Assistant Professor of Otolaryngology and Director of Audiology. Roger alerted me to an imminent phone call from Robert A. Jahrsdoerfer, a senior otologist at UVA who had just agreed to take the position as Professor and Chair of the newly created Department of Otolaryngology at the University of Texas Medical School in Houston. Roger was well aware that I had worked at the Methodist Hospital in Houston and earned my PhD at Baylor College of Medicine just a few years earlier. I still recall details of my exciting telephone conversation with Roger. Yes, Bob was a wonderful man to work with. No, Roger couldn’t uproot his family and move to Texas … but I could (well, maybe). Yes, Bob had requested from Roger a wish list of equipment for a new audiology clinic … with a grand total of $250,000 … a small fortune in the early 1980s (and not too shabby even today)! Within a day or two, Dr. Jahrsdoerfer called to ask if we could meet a few weeks later to discuss the position at a spring regional otolaryngology meeting in Palm Beach Florida that we both were participating in.

Making an Offer I Can’t Refuse

Walking through the ornate marble lobby of the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach to meet Bob Jahrsdoerfer at the fancy restaurant there, I simultaneously felt relieved and anxious. Relieved to know that I wasn’t paying for drinks and dinner but just a little nervous because our discussion that evening was sure to have a major impact on my life, the lives of Missy, Jason, Austin, and probably a lot of other people too. I was immediately impressed with Bob. [Insert photograph around here]. Bob came across as rather formal initially, appearing and even sounding sort of like a southern gentleman. At that point Bob had lived much of his life in Charlottesville Virginia working daily on the campus of Thomas Jefferson’s university. Every now and then, however, to this former speech pathologist Bob’s dialect revealed hints of his upbringing on Long Island. Bob found it quite amusing that the son of a New York butcher became a highly skilled surgeon with a worldwide reputation for technically challenging surgical repair of complicated ear anomalies like aural atresia. Missy and I soon learned that underneath the formal surface was a fair and humble man who hadn’t forgotten his roots.

Bob and I were ushered into the hotel restaurant where we had an excellent meal supplemented with an equally good bottle of wine. That night Bob reviewed the wine list and made his choice. I later discovered he liked to hand the usually ponderous wine list to me or another equally junior and nervous faculty member at dinners with faculty and, sometimes, foreign medical dignitaries in the Doctor’s Club on the Texas Medical Center campus. At our first meeting, Bob began the discussion about the position with a statement similar to: “The position is at the University of Texas Medical Center in Houston and a teaching hospital, Hermann Hospital.” He pronounced Hermann unlike anyone else, almost like a German speaker. Bob added: “I don’t really have much negotiation room for your position.” Momentarily disappointed I quickly recalled with pleasure the massive equipment budget. I often repeated Bob’s next statement at departmental social events and to colleagues who asked about my job. Ten years after The Godfather came out, and with a poker face, Bob said: “I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse.” And that he did. A 65% raise, incredible benefits including a monthly car allowance … the offer was incredible. We even discussed at dinner our respective wives reluctance to move (in Missy case return) to hot, smelly, crowded Houston.

Six More Wonderfully Productive Years in Houston Texas

Space doesn’t permit a proper recitation of the many ways Bob contributed to my career and the pleasantly productive academic culture he created in the department. For the first time in my professional life I was given the opportunity to select furniture for my office, to travel around the country picking out the very best equipment (including the largest sound booths available) for the clinic, and even to choose where in the hospital the clinic would be located!  Within a year after I took the job, and only 3 years after earning my PhD at Baylor College of Medicine which was literally across the street, Bob put me up for Associate Professor with tenure. I was always a little self-conscious when he jokingly introduced me to otolaryngology colleagues as: “The second coming of James Jerger.” Bob gave me adequate release time from clinical duties to write professionally and to begin work on my first book, the Handbook of Auditory Evoked Responses, or the “Damnbook” as Missy referred to it. For 6 wonderfully productive years, Bob consistently supported me, and the thriving audiology clinic. In 1988 he supported without hesitation my decision to move to a position at Vanderbilt University that included responsibility for teaching audiology graduate students.

Lasting Legacy

My many positive experiences with Bob Jahrsdoerfer were not atypical. He helped to launch or shape the careers of dozens of otolaryngologists in the USA and abroad. Thousands of patients from around the world benefited from Bob’s rare surgical skills, many with very serious and complex ear pathology. Roger Ruth, Bob’s first Director of Audiology, introduced me to him over 30 years ago. John Jacobson, Bob’s last Director of Audiology, called me on March 17, 2014 with the sad news that my friend and professional advocate had died.

About the Photograph:  The photograph shows Bob with his three Directors of Audiology, from left to right: Roger Ruth, me, Bob, and John Jacobson. The picture was taken in 2008 at a celebration of Roger Ruth’s 30 years of service to the Department of Otolaryngology at the University of Virginia.

You can also follow James W. (Jay) Hall III on Twitter. Be sure to visit his website:


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