Elliott Marcus, professor of neurology at Tufts; at 78

By Melvin Mason
Globe Correspondent / August 6, 2011

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Even as the end drew near, Dr. Elliott Marcus pressed on with his life’s work: sharing the knowledge he had gleaned through a lifetime of dedicated study and teaching neuroscience.

Dr. Stanley Jacobson, his friend and colleague for more than 40 years, said that even as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma took its toll on Dr. Marcus, he pushed himself, discussing his contributions to a fourth neurology book the two were collaborating on and telling friends to make sure the work continued beyond the span of his limited days.

“He wanted to live and be there to teach and to be there for his grandchildren,’’ said Jacobson, a professor of anatomy and cellular biology at Tufts Medical Center. Jacobson called him the father of the neuroscience program at Tufts.

Dr. Thomas Sabin, a friend and residency director at Tufts Medical Center who will help Jacobson complete the work, said Dr. Marcus “knew he was greatly ill, but he wanted to get the book finished.’’

Dr. Marcus - a neurologist and educator for five decades at Tufts Medical Center, Tufts University School of Medicine, and the University of Massachusetts Medical School at Saint Vincent Hospital - died July 25 in Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He was 78.

Friends and colleagues said he was dedicated to his work, loved his family, and inspired generations of doctors.

Dr. David Chad, a professor of neurology and pathology at UMass Medical School, said Dr. Marcus’s passion for neurology and teaching was always evident. Dr. Marcus often traveled from Florida more than a decade after his official retirement in 1998 to work with neurology students. He would talk with them, letting them learn through conversations, rather than just giving the answers, Chad said.

“He had a Socratic method of teaching; he let students sort of find the truth,’’ Chad said. “He would open the subject up. He would bring out the key issues to be discussed. He wouldn’t stand up and give the answers. He’d ask questions and give feedback. He was an excellent communicator. He loved sharing what he knew. He brought scholarship to his teaching.’’

Dr. Cynthia Brown, who first met Dr. Marcus in 1980 as a resident neurologist at UMass Medical School and Saint Vincent Hospital, described neurology as a “very intellectual specialty.’’

“To have someone as bright and inspiring as Dr. Marcus helps to validate one’s choice to be a neurologist,’’ she said. “He’s really a doctor’s doctor, and it is very sad to think that the upcoming classes of medical students will not be able to have his tutorials.’’

Dr. Marcus was born in Bridgeport, Conn., the oldest son of Bessie and Kalman Marcus, and was raised in Danbury, Conn. Dr. Robert Marcus of Baltimore said his big brother could very well have been a history teacher.

“Growing up, Elliott was fanatical when it came to studying history,’’ said Robert, chief of rheumatology at Harbor Hospital Center in Baltimore. “I think he read every book in the Danbury Library. He probably knew more history than some of the history teachers at Danbury High School. Anything that had printed material on it, he would read.’’

Dr. Marcus was Danbury High valedictorian in 1950. He studied psychology at Yale University, graduating magna cum laude in 1954. At Tufts Medical School, he studied under Dr. John Sullivan, one of his role models in teaching neurology, the study of nerves.

Dr. Marcus went to Columbia University Medical School in New York City in 1960 to pursue advanced medical training. While there, he met fellow medical trainee Nuran Turksoy. The couple wed in New York in 1962.

She is professor emeritus of obstetrics and gynecology at Tufts. Seeing what she went through while studying made Dr. Marcus sensitive to women as they sought medical careers. When Brown was pregnant in 1983, she recalled, Dr. Marcus made sure there was an on-call room ready if she needed to rest.

“He made sure women were treated fairly, with respect, and [said] that we were doctors in training the same as the men,’’ said Brown, formerly a neurologist at the Fallon Clinic in Worcester and currently deputy editor at DynaMed and Ebsco Publishing in Ipswich.

Dr. Marcus went with resident doctors as they checked on their patients, taking copious notes and quizzing the young physicians on what they were seeing. “He did patient-based teaching,’’ Brown said. “We weren’t just memorizing facts, but also learning about the patients. He knew we’d learn better with that kind of model. It’s what he tried to promote.’’

The lessons also took place outside the hospital. Dr. Marcus was famous for talking neurology with his resident staff aboard his boat. If not there, he engaged in conversation over a plate of seafood. “If we could have a lesson over food, it was that much better,’’ Brown said with a laugh.

Dr. Marcus also used his love of movies to spur thought. Dr. Marcus was usually the go-to guy in organizing the film clips used in the American Association of Neurology’s annual Neurobowl, a quiz on neurological disorders.

His choice in movie formats, however, was off point. “He really thought [Betamax] was going to be the way to go in home video, but with VHS tapes, it never did,’’ said Dr. Tom Mullins, a former resident neurologist at Tufts. “He placed his trust in beta. I don’t know what he did with all those beta tapes.’’

In addition to his wife and brother, Dr. Marcus leaves a daughter, Dr. Erin N. Marcus of Miami; and two grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at noon Sept. 17 in Tufts University’s Goddard Chapel.

Melvin Mason can be reached at