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Rustum Roy: Ode to a Contrarian

by Bill Benda

Heroes are popular figures in our culture, whether in comic books or politics (although the two tend to be interchangeable during election cycles). Our field of integrative medicine has its own directory of such luminaries, identified by their photo on the book jacket or within the pages of the conference brochure, accepted by the public as a resource for health and vitality via nutrition or meditation or purchasing their product. The names roll easily off our tongues: Andrew Weil, Dean Ornish, Mehmet Oz, Rustum Roy . . .

Wait a minute. Rustum Roy? Hero, yes. Recognized, no. Very few have heard of Dr. Roy, as his books and lectures focused on geochemistry, glass ceramics, and nanocomposites rather than low-fat diets and the number of steps to optimal health. But Rusty was the consummate unsung hero of healthcare, and he passed away on August 26, 2010, at the age of 86, a true visionary in a realm where the word is applied a bit too freely and often with a taste of self promotion. He was also my friend.

Rustum Roy was born in India in 1924, met Mahatma Gandhi as a child, and came to Penn State University in 1946 where he remained until his recent death. He founded the Materials Research Laboratory at Penn State and authored more than 1000 publications, many of which are still used by researchers today. He was elected fellow at both the Brookings Institute and Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, as well as to the National Academy of Sciences in 1973.

But Rusty’s national fame did not come from his work in physics and geochemistry but from his counter-establishment support of interdisciplinary studies and integrative learning. Possibly his most cherished title was awarded by Newsweek magazine, which elected him “the leading contrarian” among all U.S. scientists. And contrarian he was, not in a belligerent or abrasive way, but simply as one who saw through the rigidity and banality and protocol of academic science to the true beauty of what nature really is: inexplicable, interrelated, and far more in control of this planet than we puny humans could ever hope to be. Fortunately for me, one arena that caught his interest was the science of medicine, as Rusty realized very early on that the integrative model might well be the salvation of a healthcare system gone terribly wrong.

The year was 1998, and I was fledgling fellow in the brand-new Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. I was also much cockier then, with 20 years of conventional medicine and a decade at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA, under my belt. I was interested not in the chemically active structures of botanicals or the fluff of energy medicine but in the “big picture” that I felt wasn’t being offered in the existing curriculum. Then Professor Roy showed up one fall day, drawing intersecting circles on the white board and speaking not of how things worked but of how things related. His definition of science wasn’t based on facts or data but upon the deeper meaning of life and existence, fresh and exciting, with a physicist’s eye, a geologist’s sense of human history, and with humility – the man embodied the essence of the Gandhi he had met countless years earlier. None of us really knew of his accomplishments, or that he was a lay preacher and on the board of the National Council of Churches, or that he was beloved by so many of his students and peers. Not even I, until I read his obituary three months ago.

Rusty and I parted ways after I left the fellowship and began my own literary and research career, although we kept in touch from time to time. His name did not pop up in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine or Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, but he continued to work in the outermost boundaries of our integrative solar system. I once received an invitation from him to attend a world conference of breatharians he was hosting at Penn State – individuals who believe that food and even water aren’t necessary but find sustenance solely through the absorption of prana, the vital life force of Hinduism. When I told Rusty I could not afford the travel and hotel, the tickets arrived in the mail a few days later. That is who he was.

I will always hold the fields of geochemistry, and physics, and material science in the highest regard because of my time with Rustum Roy. Through him I learned that these were not dry, colorless realms, but alive with the beauty of undiscovered galaxies. And if he was in fact a leading contrarian, I can only hope to achieve a fraction of what I instead call vision during my own lifetime.

You will not see Rustum Roy’s name in anthologies or hear it when tributes are given at conference gala dinners. But this world, and our medicine, is far, far better for his having been with us.

He will be deeply missed . . .

  • 1 Comment
  • Cassandra Vieten, PhD Dec 07, 2010

    I remember speaking with Rustum Roy at a conference in Japan - he was great...good blog post -

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