Robert E. Hyatt

Robert E. Hyatt

Robert E Hyatt M.D. died peacefully, surrounded by his loved ones, at his home on June 11, 2016. Dr. Hyatt was a pioneer of research in respiratory physiology and its application to lung function testing for which he earned the sobriquet ‘father of the flow volume loop.’

Dr. Hyatt and his colleagues benefited millions of patients with lung disease by discovering much of what we now know of respiratory physiology.  He was a practitioner of translational research before the term was invented. In collaboration with clinical colleagues, he took discoveries in basic science and applied them at the bedside thereby transforming medical practice. Dr Hyatt was truly one of the greats of respiratory physiology and co-authored papers with the likes of Jere Mead, Sol Permutt, and Peter Macklem.  The “Flow Volume Underworld”, which they jointly founded as an ideas forum, was memorialized at the 2015 ATS meeting in Denver, the last ATS meeting Bob attended.

Dr. Hyatt was born June 2, 1925 in Trenton, NJ, to Leslie and Myrtle Hyatt. He was an excellent student and attended the Peddie Prep School in Highstown, NJ.  He enrolled in the University of Rochester in 1943, during the WWII.  In 1945, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the Navy’s accelerated undergraduate V-12 program and then entered the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. His medical school experience included a year as a Fellow with Nobel Laureate Dr. George Whipple in the Department of Pathology.  He graduated Alpha Omega Alpha with high distinction in 1950.  From Rochester NY, he moved to St. Louis MO, and served as an intern, assistant resident and research fellow at Barnes Hospital, in the Department of Medicine under Dr. Barry Woods.

From 1953-58, Dr. Hyatt served as Clinical Associate, then Investigator, at the National Heart Institute. There he met Dr. Donald Fry who encouraged his interest in lung mechanics.  They measured the relationships between lung volume, expiratory flow and driving pressure, and developed a three dimensional model to illustrate the relationship among these three variables. When rotated 90 degrees from the original display orientation, it illustrated the curious fact that maximum flow during expiration is determined by lung volume rather than expiratory effort; a profound insight into lung physiology that became a fundamental principal in the diagnosis and treatment of lung disease.  It was the origin of what we now call the “flow volume curve”, a fundamental, but not intuitively obvious illustration used for the testing of and interpretation of pulmonary function.

Dr Hyatt joined the staff of Mayo Clinic as a Consultant in Physiology and Medicine in 1962. He assumed leadership of the Pulmonary Function Laboratory, along with colleagues Ward Fowler and Fred Helmholz. In 1971, in collaboration with Earl Wood’s group, his base of support in Physiology, he founded the Thoracic Diseases Research Unit. In 1972, he founded the Respiratory Course for the new Mayo Medical School with Co-Director, Joe Rodarte. In 1973, he was named Professor of Physiology and Medicine. And in 1982, he was named the Atherton and Winifred W. Bean Professor of Medicine and Physiology in Mayo Medical School. 

Dr. Hyatt has influenced the thought processes and careers of nearly everyone with interest in respiration. He mentored over 130 fellows in Mayo’s pulmonary training program.  He co-authored papers with 41 different Mayo Staff physicians, not only in the Thoracic Disease Division, now called the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, but other divisions and departments as well. He encouraged Ted Wilson Ph.D., then a young faculty member in the Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering at the University of Minnesota, to apply engineering principles to lung research. This effort resulted in fundamental new insights in the relationships between surface tension, parenchymal micromechanics and regional lung function. He influenced Kai Rehder, M.D. to embark on pioneering studies of anesthesia’s effect on lung mechanics and gas exchange. He mentored Joe Rodarte, M.D. to test the validity of continuum mechanics models as templates for predicting the topographical distributions of lung parenchymal stress and strain. He encouraged Phil Westbrook, M.D. and Bruce Staats, M.D. to in build a Sleep Laboratory as an outgrowth of the Pulmonary Function Lab and provided strong support to Drew Miller, M.D.’s application to participate in the Lung Health Study, which helped launch the Mayo Clinic Pulmonary Clinical Research Unit.  He never quibbled about who received the credit for these innovations.

Dr. Hyatt took early retirement at the age of 62 in 1987.  In the months leading up to his retirement he familiarized himself with the current outpatient practice of Pulmonary Medicine.  He opened a part-time solo practice in Vandalia, IL, that he maintained for 6 years until returning to Rochester in 1993. He helped out reading PFT’s for several years and continued working on a number of problems related to respiratory physiology.  He published 37 papers in the years after his retirement, the most recent in 2011. His most recent abstract presentation was in 2015.