Robert E. Harbaugh ’74 has achieved eminence just a few miles west of the Valley. He
is the University Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Neurosurgery
at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Harbaugh is also a professor in
Penn State’s Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics and director of
the university’s Institute of the Neurosciences. He is a director of the
American Board of Neurological Surgery and a member of the National Football
League’s Injury Surveillance and Head, Neck and Spine committees. This April he
became president of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons.
Harbaugh earned his medical degree from Penn
State College of Medicine in 1978 and completed his neurosurgery residency at
the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H. In 1997, he received an
LVC Alumni Citation and in 2004 he received the College’s Distinguished Alumni
Award. He has also served on the College’s Board of Trustees.
How did you acquire your
always been a competitive person, from grade school on, in academics and
athletics and everything else. People are born that way I suspect.
What motivates you?
lot of things. You do want to perform at the top of your ability—I always feel
bad if I think that I haven’t given something my best shot. In competitive
situations, of course you’d rather win than lose. And then as you go on in your
career, if you’re successful I think you start to say, “I don’t want to do this
just for me, I want to do this for my department, or my university, or my
organization.” You’d feel bad if you didn’t do your best for the people you’re
working with and for.
What activities, people, or
courses at LVC helped you prepare for success?
of all, one of the really nice things about being a student at Lebanon Valley
is that you were really able to get to know your professors, and I had some
marvelous professors. For example, there were two biology professors, they were
known as Big Wolf and Little Wolfe [Paul L. Wolf, professor emeritus of biology, and Allan F. Wolfe, professor of biology].
They were both very supportive and charismatic. They obviously loved teaching and
they had a big influence on me.
was at Lebanon Valley, examinations were almost always blue-book
examinations—you had to write essays, show your thought process, and work
through a problem. I don’t think I saw a multiple-choice question until I entered
medical school. That preparation, having to know the material, put it down on
paper, and convince your professors that you understood what you were talking
about, was a very important part of the preparation there.
senior, I had classes where there were two students with one professor—it was a
tutorial type of relationship. You really had to know your material so you
learned it in a different way than you would at a bigger university. There was
an awful lot of opportunity, particularly in the Biology Department, for
independent study, both in the class structure that you chose and in the
How has global competition
changed your field?
it hasn’t for neurosurgery. The United States is clearly the world leader in
neurosurgery technology and innovation. We don’t get a lot of global
competition. Although medical tourism is increasing, I think that’s been
extraordinarily rare for neurosurgical patients because by and large the best
neurosurgical care can be obtained in this country. There are other countries
with superb neurosurgeons, but they are not better equipped to handle neurosurgical
problems than we are. Conversely, since I have been at Hershey I have had
patients come here from as far away as Mexico and Iceland for neurosurgical
What’s most important to remain
competitive in your field?
the things that we’re really focused on now is trying to make sure that we meet
the patients’ expectations. For a long time our definition of quality in
neurosurgery was based solely on what our peers thought. I could say whether
someone was a high-quality neurosurgeon based on his or her intellectual
accomplishments, diagnostic acumen, and technical expertise. Now, we have to
ask ‘is the patient satisfied?’ ‘Are we giving them the service that they
expect?’ You have to be a good doctor, not just a good technical surgeon, and
part of being a good doctor is how you communicate with the patients and meet
How do you prepare physically
and mentally for competition?
three cases on the schedule for tomorrow. Tonight, I’m going to review each of
those by mentally going through the cases step by step. You want to prepare
physically as well, get to bed on time. I usually drink a lot of coffee, but I
don’t on the days I’m operating. That kind of preparation is important. There’s
a lot about surgery that’s similar to an athletic event. It can be physically
and mentally demanding.
Who is your favorite competitive
a few neurosurgical role models including Charles Drake, a neurosurgeon in
Canada who I worked with for a while. A wonderful person, terrific intellect,
outstanding technical surgeon, and when I think about what I do, I’d like to
emulate him. Another is Richard Saunders, who was my chief when I was a
resident and junior faculty member [at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center], who
was also a superb surgeon, doctor, and person. Finally, Thoralf Sundt, who was
a neurosurgeon at the Mayo Clinic who I got to know, also had those qualities. I
look at those men as the epitome of the profession and people I’d like to
Do you have a guiding philosophy
do your best. Always play fair. Don’t be satisfied with losing and try to do
better the next time.
Which leaders inspire you? Why?
some very good friends in neurosurgery—my colleagues around the country—it
would be hard to pick any one of them. We’ve grown up in the profession
together and share national responsibility for the specialty. I am also
inspired by my colleagues in the Department of Neurosurgery, who do so much
every day for their patients.
What makes LVC competitive?
quality of the education and the fact that you get a real mentoring
relationship in your major with the professors makes LVC competitive. I spent
much of my career at Dartmouth, and it’s a very good undergraduate university,
but even there much of the teaching was done by teaching assistants, not by the
What advice would you give to
current LVC students?
something you really love to do and always do your best. Then work will be fun
and you will almost always be successful.