Robert Yee was a ‘founding father’ of the Graduate School of Public Health

Robert Yee

Robert Yee, noted as one of the “founding fathers” of the Graduate School of Public Health, died Jan. 19, 2019 at 91.

Charles R. Rinaldo, faculty member and former chair of Yee’s department — Infectious Diseases and Microbiology — joined Pitt in 1978, in Yee’s 26th year as a teacher. In a forthcoming department newsletter, Rinaldo notes that Yee “was a towering figure over seven decades in this department, school and university,” particularly as assistant chair under Monto Ho for many years.

“Bob would never say this, but we all knew that Monto was greatly dependent on Bob’s organizational skills in helping him run the department,” Rinaldo wrote. “With his passing we lost the most dedicated faculty member of our department, and particularly to our graduate students.”

In an interview, Rinaldo added: “He was indispensable to the department and really to the school,” and was most valued as a teacher of the school’s master’s and doctoral students. “They are the lifeblood of our department and Bob treated them like that. He found the time for the students and they knew they could count on him.

“He made sure the courses were top quality.” Rinaldo said. “He was a strong champion of minority students, all throughout his career,” and of the department’s female students as well.

Yee had a formal manner about him, Rinaldo recalled: “He spoke to the students as Mr. and Ms. He stood by the more traditional role” and preferred that the students call him Dr. Yee. Such displays of public deference served to demonstrate “how he was concerned about them,” Rinaldo said.

He was also a valuable mentor, advising students about course subject matter as well as on their impending careers. “It can be a lot of pressure on these kids to do well. You're now becoming a professional. I think he helped them adjust to that.

“Bob pushed our department and our school into the computer age in the 1980s,” Rinaldo remembered. “So we got into it early.”

Born June 28, 1927, Yee earned all his degrees at Pitt: a bachelor of science in 1950; master of science in 1952; and a doctorate in 1957. He joined the faculty as a biological sciences instructor following his master’s degree, was promoted to lecturer in 1954 and then appointed assistant research professor in Public Health’s Department of Epidemiology and Microbiology in 1961.

He began his career studying the use of antibiotics against shigella, a gastrointestinal infection, and then Legionella pneumophilia, the cause of Legionnaires’ disease.

In 1990, Ho instituted a scholarship in Yee’s name, and when Rinaldo became chair — with Yee staying on as assistant — Rinaldo directed the annual funds to incoming master’s students. Following Yee’s retirement as emeritus professor, a bacterium was named in Yee’s honor in 2003 by Robbin S. Weyant, Yee’s former student and then chief of the laboratory safety branch of the Centers for Disease Control’s Office of Health and Safety.