They say that one's character is shaped by the people and experiences one faces as a child, so it’s not surprising to anyone who knew the young Robert A. Weiss, MD, that he chose a profession aimed at helping people and easing suffering.
The prestigious Baltimore-based dermatologist and dermatologic researcher was raised in Forest Hills, New York, by his mother and father, who was a Holocaust survivor. “He would show me pictures and tell me about forced marches where the Nazis would kick Jews and just beat them—if the older men couldn’t keep up with the forced march, they would beat them to death right there,” says Dr. Weiss. “Hearing those stories of human cruelty made me decide, I’m going to do the opposite. I’m going to help people.”
Dr. Weiss became the first member of his family to pursue higher education, graduating from Columbia University and then the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1978.
“You get exposed to everything in med school. Of all the different rotations, the two that appealed to me were radiology and dermatology, because they were both visual,” he says. “After one year of internal medicine, I did a year of radiology but found that hours of standing and reading chest X-rays was not as fascinating as I thought it was going to be. Fortunately a slot opened up in dermatology at Johns Hopkins, so I applied for it, got it and switched from radiology to dermatology.”
Building His Practice
After completing a research fellowship in immunologic diseases at the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Weiss initially planned to go back to Johns Hopkins as a full-time junior faculty member. When he realized he was less than enthusiastic about the type of research he was assigned, his plans shifted.
“It was then I decided to open a practice and be part-time faculty at the same time,” he says. “It was 1985 and, at that time, there were none of the constraints or regulations that graduating doctors now have to put up with—it was kind of the norm to start your own little independent practice rather than join a group practice.”
Dr. Weiss admits that a lack of patients in the beginning was worrisome, but he knew it would take time to build a solid patient base. In fact, it took about a year before the practice, then called Dermatology Associates, was able to book 5 to 10 patients a day.
“I grew into it. As the practice got busier over the first two to three years, I started cutting out clinics at Johns Hopkins,” says Dr. Weiss. “I did not have an office manager and had to do everything myself at first. Within a year or two of establishing the office, my wife Margaret also joined the practice. That’s when it started to grow, and we were able to hire more employees.”
A Golden Era
One of the unique attributes that helped the Weiss’ build their practice was Dr. Weiss’ interest in laser medicine. He was at the forefront of using laser technologies for dermatologic concerns, acquiring a small CO2 device in 1986 and an argon laser a year later.
“I had a strong interest in devices—I had worked a little bit with the machines in radiology and decided that was the direction I wanted to go. Of course there were no laser fellowships—they didn’t exist,” he says. “Even the pulsed dye laser hadn’t been invented yet. The only things available that were compact enough to be installed in an office were argon lasers for treatment of vascular lesions and CO2 lasers. These were not the sophisticated ones we have today with ultra pulsing. It was a longer pulsed CO2 that could be used to burn off warts.”
Photo by Mike Morgan.