In Remembrance: Robert Gelfand ’52E, ’54MEng Died on August 26 2018

Robert (Bob) Gelfand senior investigator and assistant director of core systems at the Institute for Environmental Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, died August 26, 2018, at the age of 90.  

Born in Norwich, Connecticut, Gelfand joined the Navy in 1946. A ham radio enthusiast, he trained as an electronic technician then served in the Navy Reserves from 1948 to 1953 while attending Yale University on the GI Bill, receiving a bachelor’s in engineering in 1952 and a master’s in electrical engineering in 1954.  

In 1954, Mr. Gelfand joined the team led by pioneering undersea and aerospace researcher Christian Lambertsen at the University of Pennsylvania, where he would spend his entire career. Starting as an instrument designer, Mr. Gelfand’s abilities and devotion to the research led him to take on increasing responsibility. He was appointed assistant instructor, instructor, and associate in the Department of Pharmacology; and engineering supervisor, assistant director for bioengineering, senior investigator, and assistant director for core systems in the Institute for Environmental Medicine (IFEM), which Lambertsen founded in 1968. Despite having no formal training in biology, Gelfand became an expert in respiratory physiology and its cerebral control mechanisms, and led projects that defined the effects of oxygen administration at elevated ambient pressures (hyperoxia). He was involved in Lambertsen’s Predictive Studies Series that included research on “aquanauts” staying in the Tektite underwater habitat in Great Lameshut Bay, Saint John, US Virgin Islands, served as project leader and principal investigator for projects associated with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, and was a collaborating investigator for US Navy hyperoxia and NASA research projects. 

Gelfand authored or coauthored 40 published papers and more than 70 abstracts and scientific presentations. According to George Beck, former colleague and current senior director for ventilation science at the Zoll Medical Corporation, “His insight and ability to design and develop instrumentation that enabled new discoveries in physiology was internationally recognized and he was frequently consulted within the university and externally to ensure the reliability and repeatability of physiologic measurements in a range of challenging and unique environments that included undersea, aviation, and space. 

In addition to his scientific contributions, Mr. Gelfand was known for his even temperament, patience, and generosity of time and expertise, and was a beloved mentor to generations of doctoral candidates, postdoctoral fellows, work-study students, and staff members. All who knew him will miss the quiet conversations about any topic where his insights gave new awareness or offered a path to greater understanding through research and/or experimentation.” 

All along, Gelfand remained indispensable to the functioning of the hyperbaric chamber system that he helped design, and which was installed in 1968. According to Aron B. Fisher, who succeeded Lambertsen as IFEM director, “Bob clearly understood the most intricate workings of the hyperbaric chamber system and was crucial in maintaining the system at a high level of performance, having met [the requirements of] both the Navy and the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations. Bob supervised the IFEM associates who used the chambers for patient therapy on a daily basis and was the ‘go to’ expert for outsiders needing advice on chamber design and for inspectors from regulatory agencies. His record keeping, memory, and insights were clearly key to the flawless performance and worldwide recognition of our hyperbaric oxygen therapy and research operations.” 

Gelfand remained an important member of the hyperbaric chamber supervisory team following transfer of the hyperbaric oxygen program from the IFEM to Emergency Medicine in January 2013, though he stopped actively working later that year, after 59 years in hyperbaric medicine, due to his health. (He had had Parkinson’s disease for over 20 years.) George Beck states, “He continued to consult with his IFEM colleagues until very recently, passing along the knowledge required for safe operation of the chambers as well as the legacy of all those who had contributed to its founding and success. We will miss our colleague, mentor, and friend.” 

Milton Corn says, “We were put together as roommates freshman year at Yale, and stayed together for all of the three years I was there. (Yale had a program that permitted me to spend my fourth ‘college year’ as a first-year medical student.) Bob was highly intelligent, yes, but he was always more—good-humored, even-tempered, and a gentleman—a decent man of unimpeachable integrity. As an EE he also worked harder than English majors such as myself, but he never complained. I was fortunate to have so fine a man as roommate! The passing of Bob Gelfand will be mourned by me and countless others who had the privilege of knowing him.” 

He is survived by his wife of 59 years, Mildred; brother Samuel (Yale class of 1950); sister Miriam; son Martin; daughters Lois and Karen; and two grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the Parkinson’s Foundation (

—Submitted by the family.

Post a remembrance