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Robert G. Spiro, M.D.: One of a Kind


How would you celebrate 50 years of living with diabetes? Joslin Senior Investigator Emeritus Robert G. Spiro, M.D., marked this tremendous milestone by honoring the work of Joslin Diabetes Center. This act of generosity reflects the uniqueness of this first Joslin staff member to receive a 50-Year Medal—and Dr. Spiro’s uniqueness was apparent from the day he was diagnosed with diabetes.

Ahead of his Time
The year was 1954 and Robert Spiro was a senior in medical school. He noticed the signs and symptoms of type 1 diabetes in himself. “The Chief of Medicine told me that medical students often believe they have the diseases that they are learning about,” he recalls. “Unfortunately he was wrong in my case and I prepared myself to live with diabetes with a minimum disruption to my career.”

No disruption occurred because Dr. Spiro was more than familiar with Dr. Joslin’s belief in the importance of good control—he had written an honor’s thesis on diabetes while in medical school. “Accordingly I right away embarked on a regimen of weighing my food and taking multiple daily injections—even though most doctors at the time still thought that tight blood sugar control was not relevant to the prevention of diabetic complications.”

In 1961 Dr. Spiro joined Joslin and established a research laboratory. Dr. Spiro served as Chief of the Section on Glycoproteins and Biomembranes at Joslin, where the focus was on uncovering the mechanisms underlying diabetes complications. His studies on the kidney glomerulus in diabetes provided a biochemical rationale for tight blood glucose control, which is now a universally accepted concept. Dr. Spiro’s work was recognized in 1968 by the American Diabetes Association’s Lilly Award, and in 1975 he received the Claude Bernard Medal from the European Association for the Study of Diabetes, one of the finest honors in the field of diabetes.

The Right Companion
Five years into his Joslin career, Dr. Spiro welcomed a colleague to his lab, his wife Mary Jane Spiro, Ph.D. They have since collaborated on diabetes research for more than 35 years. Dr. Spiro describes his relationship with his wife as the most significant factor in his living with diabetes for five decades. “When young people who have been recently diagnosed with type 1 diabetes ask me how to manage their disease, I tell them to consider their illness as a challenge, to maintain tight control of their blood sugar, and to try to find an understanding life-companion.”

A member of Harvard Medical School (HMS) for 48 of his 50 years with diabetes, Dr. Spiro is a HMS Professor of Biological Chemistry Emeritus. He continues to be an active participant in the academic diabetes community at Joslin. Dr. Spiro continues to feel great and has not developed any diabetic complications so far: “I credit this good fortune to strict control of my blood sugar, which has been facilitated in recent years by the use of an insulin pump.”

True Inspiration
When Dr. Spiro received his 50-Year Medal, he gave something back—announcing the establishment of the Robert G. Spiro, M.D. Endowed Campership Fund. This gift, which will grow over time, also helps campers right now:  the fund’s annual distribution goes to children who need financial assistance to attend the Elliott P. Joslin Camping Programs.

Dr. Spiro says that for many years he has been inspired by an adage that Dr. Joslin had inscribed on the wall of the staircase of the original Pilgrim Road building. The statement has been attributed to the sixth century medieval scholar Isidore of Seville, but continues to be relevant today: “Learn as if you would live forever, live as if you would die tomorrow."

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Page last updated: September 18, 2015