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The House Rosenwasser Built: Neuroscience at Jefferson

Neurosurgery at Jefferson has come a long way since 1887, when Dr. W.W. Keen removed the first brain tumor in America.

While advances in medical knowledge, research, and technology have propelled the healthcare field as a whole, the rapid growth of the neuroscience department at Jefferson can be largely attributed to one man: Robert Rosenwasser, MD.

Dr. Rosenwasser came to Jefferson from New York University in the fall of 1994, when he was presented with the unique opportunity to help establish a neurological hospital.

Prior to Rosenwasser’s arrival, neurology at Jefferson was largely focused on spinal cord injuries and spinal surgery. He assembled an elite team with the intention of shifting to a paradigm of subspecialization in neurosurgery. This idea of bringing together specialists from a variety of backgrounds was ambitious and unprecedented in the neurological field. This wouldn’t be the only first that the Neurology Department would go through under Rosenwasser’s leadership.

“There were several gamechangers when we came to this region,” Rosenwasser recalls. “We really had first-mover advantage in technology and skillset.”

Rosenwasser himself was the first neurosurgeon in the country to be dual-trained in open and endovascular surgery. Jefferson was also the first neurology department to conduct stereotactic radiosurgery for brain tumors and vascular malformations.

Despite initial apprehensions, the shift to subspecialization ultimately worked and launched Jefferson to the forefront of neuroscience on a global scale, but Rosenwasser felt there were still more improvements to be made.

While working as a researcher, Rosenwasser found that he would often need to reach out to other labs within the Department and get permission to use their facilities. In one such instance, Rosenwasser needed access to the Farber Institute, which strictly focused on degenerative neurological diseases. In an attempt to utilize available resources, he met with Vickie and Jack Farber to discuss using their labs—despite being in a different research area—which the Farbers graciously allowed.

The results of this seemingly mundane conversation sparked an idea that would revolutionize neuroscience at Jefferson. 

Rosenwasser proposed that all neuroscience enterprisewide be housed under a single umbrella institution, a proposal unanimously accepted by the Farbers, the individual departments, and Jefferson leadership.

“It was clear that we could establish something special where two plus two equaled 10,” Rosenwasser says. “It wasn’t just additive; it was synergistic.”

The founding of the Vickie and Jack Farber Institute of Neuroscience launched another series of firsts at Jefferson, as several fellowship programs were created in the fields of neurocritical care, neurovascular neurology, brain tumor surgery, and functional and epileptic neurology.

As the Department of Neuroscience has emerged as a leader in clinical practice and research, so too has it grown as an education institution. “They really do go hand in glove,” Rosenwasser says about the relationship between education, research, and training.

As a prolific institution with a high publication rate, Jefferson attracts the best and brightest students in the field and is training the next generation of doctors and researchers.

The future of Neuroscience at Jefferson is bright. As an industry leader in clinical practice, research, and education, Jefferson is redefining the future of the field. As technology continues to advance, infrastructure grows, and National Institutes of Health funding dwindles in D.C., the Department of Neuroscience needs the support of patients, families, and advocates to ensure that Jefferson stays at the forefront of healthcare.

“We should be defining what is relevant in neuroscience,” Rosenwasser says. “And to do that, it takes enormous investments.”