The Big Wheel

He came from humble beginnings, but the skills and lessons Perry Robins, MD, learned along the way led him to become a preeminent physician, leader in the fight against skin cancer, influential businessman and philanthropic citizen of the world.

By Julie Bain

Perry Robins, MD, is trying to tell me a story. It’s a dramatic one, about when he was a medical corpsman on an Army transport ship headed to Korea in 1952. Would he end up in combat? Would he suffer the hellish parade of endless wounded portrayed in the TV show M*A*S*H? Or would he somehow find a way to stay out of danger?

I’m on the edge of my seat, but he’s having trouble finishing the tale because he’s continually interrupted by cries of “Dr. Robins!” from physicians who know him — or know of him. He’s one of the most famous dermatologists in the world, who happens to be sitting next to a large portrait of himself in The Skin Cancer Foundation booth at the year’s biggest gathering of dermatologists.

Dr. Robins is an A-list celebrity in dermatology. He challenged and eventually changed the conventional wisdom in his medical specialty. He revolutionized treatment for nonmelanoma skin cancer by helping many dermatologists become Mohs surgeons, and he served as an international ambassador for the technique. He personally performed about 47,000 skin cancer surgeries in his 49 years of practice. He battled the thinking that suntanning was healthy and pushed for more protective sunscreens. He founded The Skin Cancer Foundation in 1979 — the first charitable organization devoted to educating physicians and the public about the dangers of skin cancer and the best ways to prevent, diagnose and treat it. He continues to guide it to this day.

It’s no wonder so many of the 18,000 doctors attending the American Academy of Dermatology annual meeting in Washington, D.C., want to pay their respects. When you hear Dr. Robins’ extraordinary life story (which I eventually do when we find a quieter spot), it seems like he was destined to achieve all he did. But it never came easy. It came from keen intelligence, careful calculation, a bit of luck and occasionally being in the right place at the right time — but mostly it came from hard work.

Down on the Farm

Pherris (“Perry”) Robins was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1930, just as the country was plunging into the Great Depression. Robins’ father, Lewis, owned a small automotive repair business, but times were tough. When Perry and his sister, Irene, were teens, they moved to family farmland north of the city. (His mother’s sister and brother-in-law ran the farm.) Still, there was never enough money. His father did the best he could, Robins says, “but he didn’t have the joie de vivre, the energy or the spirit that my mother had.”

His mother worked in a bakery and also took care of the house and did the laundry. Robins learned that his mother often ate only the free cake at the bakery to help save money on the family’s food budget. She developed type 2 diabetes (and in fact died of complications from the disease when she was only 62).

My mother was very modest. I learned from her about the importance of giving back.

She was also the secretary for a local charitable women’s organization, and people in the area learned that when someone was in need, she never said no. One of Robins’ favorite stories is about when a nearby school principal called to tell her that it was snowing outside and two children had come to school wearing paper shoes. “Do you think your organization can afford to buy the kids some shoes?” he asked. His mother replied, “I don’t know about the organization, but I will.” Robins says, “She bought each of those kids two pairs of shoes and never told anybody. She was very modest. I learned from her about the importance of giving back. I had deep reverence and love for my mother.”

Young Perry had to help out. He got up very early to feed the chickens and gather the eggs, and then he had to walk or hitchhike to the bus stop to go to high school in a town miles away. After school he worked in a hardware store, then had to take a public bus and walk the rest of the way home. “I would fall asleep at the dinner table,” he says.

During his time at the hardware store, he learned that he was good with his hands and could fix things. He also learned that he was “creative and a dreamer,” as the woman who was his boss labeled him. “Between customers, instead of being ambitious and straightening out the racks or sweeping the floor, I would sit on the counter and just stare into space. When the boss would ask, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘Well, I was thinking how you could remodel this store and make it beautiful and have more customers. And you should also advertise.’” These were the first signs of Robins’ entrepreneurial talent.

He wasn’t a good student in high school, he says, mainly because he was always sleep-deprived from his long hours of work. He got by with a C average, without studying. He didn’t really want to go to college, but the uncle who lived with his family encouraged him to study, work hard and do something special with his life. “He became a role model to me,” Robins explains. “He used himself as an example. He had never gone to college, and he was turned down for an important job at the United Nations, even though he’d passed the aptitude test. He told me that being Jewish would make it harder for me to get a good job, that I’d end up working the night shift somewhere. He pushed me to get an education.”

College Boy

With those seeds planted, Robins began to think about college. “My parents told me that I would have to start getting better grades. So I cut back on feeding the chickens and collecting the eggs. My uncle started driving me to the school bus. And I studied. I got almost all A’s my senior year in high school. Then I was accepted to the University of Maryland, the least expensive school east of the Mississippi.”

Robins had never thought about becoming a physician. In fact, he had never even been to see a doctor. He didn’t know what he wanted to do. When his parents asked, “Why don’t you major in something that might be useful?” he decided to focus on chemistry, just to please them.

To help pay his way, he tried out his budding skills as an entrepreneur. He sold stationery and business cards on the weekends. He hired kids to sell nylon stockings for him, and white bucks during the holiday season. He never slowed down, remembering a phrase his parents often said: “The harder you work, the luckier you’ll be.” He managed to study, too, and he received his bachelor’s degree in 1952.

Military Man

Still a bit rudderless and low on cash after college, Robins was drafted into the Army. When he developed a high fever and was admitted to the hospital for treatment, the doctor asked him if he’d like to become a medical corpsman. He said it was a relatively cushy job. “You’ll be in a hospital, they have steak every night, and ice cream. And you don’t have to go through basic training,” Robins recalls. “So I said, ‘Sign me up.’”

He never fired a weapon or had to march wearing heavy gear, and his on-the-job training at Fort Eustis near Newport News, Virginia, wasn’t very onerous. Private Robins was assigned to the hospital night shift six days a week. It was often so quiet that the corpsmen just slept. The medical field hadn’t completely hooked him yet. Instead, Robins’ entrepreneurial thinking clicked on again.

He negotiated longer shifts so that he could have some weekdays and weekends off. (“I wasn’t a typical private,” he says, laughing.) He made the risky move of taking a side job selling refrigerators at Sears on the weekends. Because he was making more money at Sears, he paid some of the corpsmen to work his hospital shifts. He was fired from Sears, though, when his boss saw him slip out the back door to return to the base for inspection to avoid being reported AWOL.

Next, Robins landed a part-time job with an insurance company, but it went awry when the employer checked his references. “They found out I was U.S. government property,” Robins says, “and I was fired.”

His commanding officer was not pleased with Robins’ less than full attention to duty and said the Army was sending him to Korea. When there was a delayed-paperwork snafu (with the help of a friendly sergeant), he hoped he might be off the hook. But soon he was aboard the S.S. Patrick Henry heading to Korea. When the ship stopped to refuel in Yokohama, Japan, by a stroke of luck, Robins heard a captain call out to him, “We need corpsmen. We have burn patients from Pusan that we need to treat. Get in the ambulance!” Yes, the end of the story is that he was pulled off the transport ship in Japan to help take care of the wounded soldiers evacuated from South Korea. And he never had to go to a combat zone.

Although he’d had minimal training, Robins said he wasn’t nervous when he first saw the wounded. In fact, he was a natural. “I felt I had enough experience to help these patients,” he says. And he did. After a couple of weeks there, Robins lucked out again when he was transferred to Tokyo Army Hospital, where he was assigned to work in a clinic for children and spent his afternoons in school learning Japanese. That changed everything. He worked closely with a pediatrician, learned a lot and fell in love with treating children.

When it was time for Robins to leave Tokyo, his attending pediatrician said, “Perry Robins, if you don’t become a pediatrician, I’m going to haunt you for the rest of your life. You’ve got the smarts, you’ve got the personality. You’re a natural pediatrician.” Robins said, “OK, I’ll give it my best try.”

Medical Student Abroad

When he returned to the States, Robins kept his word and applied to medical schools. While his experience in the Army was valuable, he hadn’t taken the MCAT exam. He was advised to study hard, take the test and reapply in a year. He also needed to find a job.

He applied for positions in the pharmaceutical industry but the New York City area was too competitive. His time overseas in the military had sparked his interest in languages and seeing the world. So when a friend of his parents offered him free transportation on a freighter taking coal to Rotterdam, he jumped at the chance to go and visit two friends studying medicine at Leiden University in Holland. (On the boat, no one spoke English, only Greek, so he learned to speak Greek in 17 days.)

In Holland, he was inspired by his friends and thought that maybe he could go to medical school in Europe, too. “I really wanted to be a pediatrician,” he says. He applied and was accepted at Leiden as well as the University of Paris. (“It helped that I knew a little French.”) He was still concerned about money, though. A solution presented itself when he met a GI who told him that Heidelberg University in Germany was offering a scholarship to a couple of American medical students, with free room, board and tuition. He applied, even though he didn’t speak German. He took a train to Heidelberg to interview, and he was accepted.

“I was afraid to fail, so I really studied and worked my tush off to make sure I was successful,” he says. He became fluent in German. His sister helped him by sending $2 a week the entire time he was in Heidelberg until the day in 1961 when he graduated from medical school — with honors.

The Switch to Dermatology

After his internship at Orange Memorial Hospital in New Jersey in 1961 and 1962, Dr. Robins signed on to do his residency at Babies Hospital in New Jersey. He wanted to keep his promise to become a pediatrician. Right before he was to start, though, he learned that the hospital was losing its accreditation. Another option came his way when he had dinner with Arlington Bensel Jr., MD, an attending dermatologist at Orange Memorial Hospital, who said, “I’ve been watching you, and I like you. If you go into dermatology, I’ll start you out at $60,000 a year.”

I struggled with my conscience. I’d had a wonderful experience in pediatrics, and I really had a guilty feeling about giving up my wish to work with children. But I couldn’t turn down this opportunity.

Dr. Robins was dumbfounded. He’d been making about $50 a month, and after seeing his parents barely get by all their lives, this was a salary beyond imagining. He struggled with his conscience, though. “After being poor for so long, it was very tempting. I didn’t sleep for two or three days. I’d had a wonderful experience in pediatrics, and I really had a guilty feeling about giving up my wish to work with children. But I couldn’t turn down this opportunity.”

He needed to find a dermatology residency — fast. “I heard about an opening at the University of Texas at Galveston,” he says. “I spoke to the chairman and told him I spoke French, German, Spanish and Japanese. He said, ‘By God, we need you here.’” But Robins’ beloved mother had passed away, and his father, who still lived in New Jersey, needed him to be nearby.

When he learned of an opening at the Bronx VA Hospital, it seemed like the perfect spot for him, but the chairman of the department said they didn’t take foreign graduates. Dr. Robins replied that he had been accepted at Galveston. The chairman said, “That’s one of the best departments, the hardest one to get into. Why would they take you?” Dr. Robins replied, “I can show you the acceptance letter.” The chairman replied, “If you can show me the acceptance letter, you can start tomorrow.” The young doctor hurried home, got the letter and started the next day.

Revolution in Surgery

Dr. Robins completed his training in dermatology at New York University Medical Center in 1964 (and remained affiliated with the hospital until his retirement). In those days, dermatology was not considered a surgical specialty. He soon had an idea to challenge that status.

Doctors would shake their fingers at me and say, ‘Shame, shame, shame. We’re not surgeons; we’re medical doctors. You’re going to give us a bad reputation.’

“I had a roommate who told me about Frederic Mohs at the University of Wisconsin, who was doing a technique called chemosurgery that showed promise for successfully treating certain skin cancers,” he says. It involved applying a chemical paste made of zinc chloride to the cancerous lesion. This paste caused the tissue to become “fixed” or hardened. At that point the tissue would neither bleed nor allow sensation, so the surgeon could cut out, or excise, the tumor with no anesthesia and no bleeding. Then the tissue could be sliced and examined under a microscope, while the patient waited, to make sure all the cancerous cells were removed. When all clear, a few days later a plastic surgeon would close the wound.

Dr. Robins was intrigued, so in the fall of 1965 he went to Madison, Wisconsin, to observe the procedure. He trained there for a few weeks, then returned to New York with the goal of putting his new skills into practice.

What would eventually become a revolution in dermatology did not go over very well at first. Dr. Robins recalls, “When I went to work in my office in the hospital, doctors would shake their fingers at me and say, ‘Shame, shame, shame. We’re not surgeons; we’re medical doctors. You shouldn’t be doing this. You’re going to give us a bad reputation.’ They tried to run me out, but I didn’t give up.”

He got a lot of support when the chairman of the NYU Department of Dermatology, Rudolf L. Baer, MD, and dermatologist Alfred W. Kopf, MD (who went on to become a pioneer for early detection with the “ABCDEs of melanoma”), decided to test out the technique in a joint project with the Department of Plastic Surgery. Dr. Robins worked closely with a plastic surgeon for the first year to develop his surgical skills. Dr. Robins would do the excision of the tumor, and the plastic surgeon would close and stitch the wound. Then the plastic surgeon offered to teach him how to do the closures. He got so good at the procedure, he wanted to teach it to other dermatologists. In 1969 Dr. Robins started the first one-year training program in chemosurgery.

Other people were paying attention. The chairman of the Department of Dermatology at the University of Tennessee had seen a presentation by Dr. Robins and thought it made sense for dermatologists to learn how to perform this treatment. He suggested that one of his students, Rex Amonette, MD, apply for a fellowship with Dr. Robins.

“My chairman at Tennessee knew that I had better hands than most of the other residents. I’d done some surgery in the military,” Dr. Amonette says. He and Dr. Robins hit it off right away, and Dr. Amonette became one of his first fellows. “It was a great experience for my wife and me and our two little girls,” he says. “Dr. Robins was so kind. He set us up in an apartment across the street from where he lived, looking downtown to where the World Trade Center’s twin towers were under construction. We went to work together every day. We loved New York from the start.”

When Dr. Amonette had completed his training, he took his skills back to Memphis and started a movement to do this chemosurgery there. “It was like starting all over in Memphis. No one was excited about this, and they didn’t know about it. I had to do some persuading,” he says.

The technique did have drawbacks. The zinc chloride paste that was used to harden the tissue was very painful for patients. “We said ‘discomfort,’ Dr. Robins says, “but it was painful.” And it could take several hours or a day for the paste to work. “Also, the paste couldn’t be used around the eyes, because it would damage the cornea,” he says. “Surgeons found that when they didn’t use the paste around the eyes but just cut out the cancerous tissue, the results were successful. But no one had thought about extending that technique to other parts of the body.”

Around 1970 a physician in San Francisco did just that and presented about 100 cases using this “fresh tissue” technique on skin cancers. Dr. Robins started using it, too, and found that he achieved an even higher cure rate. Within about three years, he was using the technique on all his cases, and Dr. Amonette and other doctors adopted what became known as “Mohs micrographic surgery.” Some say it should be called Robins surgery.

As Mohs surgery started to catch on, Dr. Robins wanted to ensure that dermatologists in other parts of the world could learn the technique. In 1974, for example, he closed his practice for a month and traveled to Australia, which has very high rates of skin cancer, to train doctors there. He did 39 pro bono surgeries and became known as the father of Australian dermatological surgery. He organized a similar project in Spain and became one of only three Americans at the time to be named an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Medicine. In 1978 he founded the International Society for Dermatologic Surgery (ISDS) as a worldwide resource for dermatologists who offer surgical treatment for their patients. Over the years, he lectured in 40 countries (and in four languages), many times over.

Dr. Amonette went on to train dozens of Mohs surgeons over the course of his career, who then passed on their skills to others. An estimated 40 percent of the dermatologists performing Mohs surgery today were trained by Dr. Robins or his students. Dr. Robins remained chief of Mohs Micrographic Surgery at NYU until 2007.

Physician-Philanthropist

As Dr. Robins became successful in his practice and saw more and more patients with skin cancer, he also saw a need to raise awareness about the dangers of ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. “When they learned they had skin cancer, my patients would berate me and say, ‘Why didn’t anyone tell me that the sun isn’t good for me? I was using reflectors, baby oil, iodine.’ A couple of patients said, ‘Why don’t we do something about it?’”

He had never forgotten the selfless acts his mother performed whenever she learned of someone in need. He wanted to follow in her footsteps and give back, too. He dreamed of creating a charitable foundation to educate the public and physicians about skin cancer. He approached the American Cancer Society as well as the American Academy of Dermatology. “They were not interested. No one was interested in educating people about skin cancer in the late ’60s and early ’70s,” he says. So he used his own money to get started. He hired a part-time employee and consulted with a lawyer about acquiring 501c3 charitable status. He hosted several fundraising dinners, recruited some grateful patients as cofounders and in 1979 they met at Windows on the World in the World Trade Center downtown to make it official. The Skin Cancer Foundation was born.

When they learned they had skin cancer, my patients would berate me and say, ‘Why didn’t anyone tell me that the sun isn’t good for me?’

“We were fighting the conventional wisdom that the sun was healthy,” Dr. Robins says. “And there were few protective sunscreens at that time. You didn’t know what was in them or what the differences were between the products available.” Dr. Robins learned that Franz Greiter, a chemist in Austria, was developing the idea of sun protection factor (SPF) numbers for sunscreens. Dr. Robins and the Foundation were the first to promote the concept in the U.S.

He knew from the start that the Foundation’s work was making a difference. “UV radiation is so detrimental to people’s health; we knew we had to do something to help them. It gives you a good feeling to know you’ve helped save people from disfigurement — and helped save lives.”

Worldly Wheeler-Dealer

Besides performing thousands of surgeries during his decades of practice, serving as an honorary member of international organizations, running the Foundation and even launching two medical journals, Dr. Robins had many other interests.

He nurtured his passions for travel, adventure and entrepreneurship. Often, they overlapped. His wife (they later divorced) worked for an airline, so they were able to see much of the world together. And his travels helped to inspire ideas and opportunities.

He highlights a few of the ventures he created or invested in: “I had a construction company. I had 25 percent of a restaurant on the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Sadly, a huge fire destroyed the building next door, so we had to close. There was a travel agency. I had a sailboat company and eight boats. I was a medical officer for the German airline Lufthansa for a while.” His love of flying inspired him to get his pilot’s license and to invest in three planes. “I only did one solo flight, though,” he says. “I was alone at 10,000 feet over Fort Myers, Florida, when suddenly I thought, I must be out of my friggin’ mind. What the hell am I doing up here? After that I never flew alone again. I figured the life I’d save probably would be my own.” That was the only time Perry Robins ever grounded himself. Most of the time it was full speed ahead.

Dr. Amonette says, “I wonder when he sleeps! Dr. Robins is always having new thoughts and new ideas. Just when he’s got a project finished, he’s got to have another one.”

“Yes, I’m a workaholic,” Dr. Robins concedes. “I love creating new projects. In fact, I have some new ones in mind right now.”

The Joys of (Semi)-Retirement

While he’s no longer seeing patients, Dr. Robins hasn’t slowed down all that much at 85. He travels extensively with his fiancée Dr. Marcia Robbins-Wilf, a philanthropist and longtime generous supporter of The Skin Cancer Foundation. They’ve been together about a decade. “Those 10 years with Marcia have been the best years of my life — unequivocally,” he says. “We’re still in Europe two or three times a year, and visit other countries when we can, such as Panama earlier this year for the Foundation.”

‘Dr. Robins has been one of my favorite people in the world,’ says Rex Amonette, MD. ‘Without him, my life would not have been as good.’

In the winter the two are usually in Florida, about 11 miles north of Palm Beach. “It’s a nice community with people of all ages,” he says. “I look outside the window and the sun is shining, the flowers are in bloom, the birds are singing. It’s 80 degrees and I can jump in the pool. It’s wonderful. Plus, we have so many friends here and we go out all the time.”

Other times of the year they stay in their house in New Jersey, or his apartment in a high-rise tower near NYU Medical Center with a spectacular view over the East River. When he’s in the city, he says, “I love going to the theater. I love the museums. It’s pulsating and exciting 24 hours a day. It’s absolutely great.”

He’s grateful for his good health. “I just had my physical and everything is textbook healthy. The only thing is I’m overweight. The reason is that we’re always out for lunch or dinner with friends. My problem is I have never found a food I didn’t like.”

He’s also thankful for his two children, Elizabeth and Lawrence, and stays on friendly terms with their mother. “After the divorce, my daughter Elizabeth spent a little more time with her mother. But now we have a great bond, and I speak with my daughter every day.” She is a member of The Skin Cancer Foundation Board of Directors. “She’s married, and they bought a house in Short Hills to be near me when I’m in New Jersey,” he says. “And I have two special grandchildren.”

His son Lawrence, Dr. Robins says, is feisty and independent. “He has a mind of his own. He’s twice as creative as I am. I turned over the journal publishing company to him. He’s a great son,” he says. “I don’t see him as much as I would like, but we get together when I’m in New York.”

Still attending medical conferences and events is a great way to see the many friends he’s acquired. As Dr. Amonette says, “Dr. Robins has been one of my favorite people in the world. Without him, my life would not have been as good.”

Dr. Robins says what he misses most are the many patients with whom he had a relationship. “People who have one skin cancer often get more, and I’d see them over the years and get to know them and their families. One patient gave The Skin Cancer Foundation a million dollars. Another patient gave half a million dollars. But I also did lots of charity pro bono work for people who didn’t have money.

“Still, if I’d known how good retirement was, I would have done it a few years earlier. It’s wonderful.”


A Few of Dr. Robins’ Favorite Things

Favorite bird: Robin. I always say the Robins family is a flock of birds. That’s why we still fly to Florida. Robins are a sign of spring. But isn’t it interesting that you never see them in flocks? They fly solo.

Favorite sport: None. I occasionally went to hockey, basketball or football games with friends, but I never really had time for sports. I was always working. I still am. I have golf privileges at three country clubs, but I don’t play.

Favorite composers: Tchaikovsky. Also Beethoven.

Favorite foreign country: The kitchen, anywhere. I love the South of France. And Italy — the food, the people. How can you not like Italy?

Favorite films: My Fair Lady. “Get me to the church on time…” Also The Sound of Music. I stayed in the magnificent old Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vermont, twice before it tragically burned down in 1980. It’s not the same now.

Favorite animal: I grew up with dogs on the farm. I love dogs! Our current dog is a Chihuahua named Salsa.

Favorite actors: Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. I once did surgery on her (although I never talk about a patient who is still alive). When she was on Broadway in Woman of the Year I got a call that she was hemorrhaging. I ran backstage with my bag, and she had two drops of blood on the Band-Aid. So I changed the Band-Aid.

Favorite hobby: I love to tell jokes. Have you heard the one about the little old lady who is taking her dog on a plane back to Israel with her?

Favorite foreign language: I’m best in German, but I’m funny in French. I know a lot of good expressions! But I’m working very hard to improve my Spanish because my 3-year-old granddaughter speaks Spanish better than I can.

Favorite artist: Jackson Pollock. I could have bought one for $5,000 back when I was an intern. But I was making $50 a month then.


Julie Bain is health and science editor at The Skin Cancer Foundation.

Published on May 18, 2016