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Fundraising effort seeks to honor late WVU neurosurgeon, football team physician

A fundraising effort from the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute is under way to create an endowed chair position in honor of Dr. G. Robert Nugent.

As a resident at New York University in the 1980s, Dr. Mark Lee was honored to meet and learn from world-renowned neurosurgeon Dr. G. Robert Nugent, a visiting West Virginia University professor invited to share his expertise by a longtime friend.

Now, Lee is building upon the legacy Nugent left behind following his 50-plus years at WVU. As chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery for the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute, Lee hopes to continue growing the Department via an endowed chair position created in Nugent’s memory. An additional $300,000 in private support is needed to fully fund the endowment.

“My goal is that WVU neurosurgery becomes a nationally relevant program, as it was during Dr. Nugent’s day,” Dr. Lee said. “To do that, we need to raise the additional $300,000 for this endowed chair. This will give us great freedom to recruit the next generation of faculty that we need here in Morgantown.”

After joining the School of Medicine in 1961, Nugent was among the first neurosurgeons to treat patients at then-University Hospital – now the WVU Health Sciences Center – and helped create the four-year medical degree program at WVU in the 1960s. Among his many accomplishments, he was a pioneer in microscopic brain surgery and a world expert in treating trigeminal neuralgia, a painful nerve condition in the face.

Nugent also served as the team physician for the WVU football team for more than 40 seasons, ending in 2013. Former WVU Head Football Coach Don Nehlen said Nugent was always very unassuming, despite his impressive achievements.

“When I came here in January 1980, I was a very lucky and fortunate guy, because, you know, as a football coach, it’s kind of comforting to know that you’ve got one of the great doctors in America working with your young people,” Nehlen said. “In Dr. Nugent, I had one of the top neurosurgeons working with our football players. … I just can’t say enough good things about Dr. Nugent. He came to every one of our football games. He was on the sideline every game, home and away.”

Nehlen recalled that Nugent was an excellent dancer who enjoyed showcasing his skills with his wife, Virginia, at team dances. Colleagues and friends have previously described Nugent as a renaissance man; his diverse interests also included astronomy, woodworking and boxing.

Nugent led the Department of Neurosurgery from 1970 to 1985. Following his retirement as chair, he continued to mentor residents for many years and treated patients until his death in 2016, at the age of 95.

“Our success as a leading academic medical center is rooted in the educational, administrative and clinical contributions of Dr. Nugent,” Dr. Clay Marsh, vice president and executive dean for Health Sciences, said. “His vision helped pave the way for a culture of collaboration and forward thinking that our WVU medical students, faculty and state benefit from to this day.”

Dr. Harry Lowell, who made the initial $1 million contribution toward the Nugent chair, was among the neurosurgery residents Nugent mentored. He described Nugent as a “beloved father figure” who was always honest and compassionate with patients.

Dr. Ali Rezai, executive chair of the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute, said he was familiar with Nugent long before he came to WVU, describing the late doctor as “a master neurosurgeon and a promising figure in the world of neurosurgery.” Even four years after Nugent’s passing, Rezai said he still hears regular stories from colleagues, patients and alumni about Nugent’s impact.

He encourages them to pay tribute to Nugent by supporting the endowed chair.

“This is a way that we can honor his name and legacy, by establishing this endowed chair that is basically memorializing his name as a key figure at West Virginia University neurosurgery that has contributed so much to the health and wellness of individuals affected by neurological disorders and been a leader in neurosurgical training and education,” Rezai said.

Rezai and others hope generous alumni and friends will help fund the Nugent Chair in support of WVU’s fourth Day of Giving on Wednesday, March 3. To make a gift toward the Nugent chair, visit the Department of Neurosurgery’s dedicated online giving page. All gifts are made through the WVU Foundation, the nonprofit organization that receives and administers private donations on behalf of the University.

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