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Originally published December 6, 2011 at 7:19 PM | Page modified December 6, 2011 at 8:55 PM

Dr. William O. Robertson, poison-center founder, dies at 86

Dr. Robertson, a pediatrician and founder of the Washington Poison Center, died Nov. 30 of natural causes at his home in Wallingford's University House. He was 86.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Every year Dr. William O. Robertson would take new medical residents to lunch at a Chinese restaurant and, as soon as the food arrived, would cover it with salt.

Once a resident told him, "Dr. R, salt's not good for you." To which Dr. Robertson responded, "it's not the substance but the dose." And he never quit pouring salt all over his food — even yogurt.

Dr. Robertson, a pediatrician and founder of the Washington Poison Center, died Nov. 30 of natural causes at his home in Wallingford's University House. He was 86.

For six decades, Dr. Robertson, known as Dr. R., was one of Seattle's most influential physicians in pediatrics, toxicology, teaching and poison prevention.

He was born in Brooklyn, raised in New York and graduated from the University of Rochester School of Medicine in Rochester, N.Y. He taught pediatrics at Yale University before heading to Ohio State University to chair the Department of Pediatrics. He moved to the Northwest in 1963 and started working for the University of Washington and Seattle Children's hospital, starting the poison-control center.

Over the next five decades he served as director of medical education at Children's, chair of pediatrics at the UW and medical director for the poison-control center.

"He had the kind of mind where he might forget where he left his keys but could quote from a textbook he read 30 years earlier," said Jim Williams, executive director of the poison-control center. "He loved to learn, and he loved to teach."

Ruth Lawrence, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester, went to medical school with Dr. Robertson. "He was a prince of a gentleman every moment of his life," she said.

Dr. Robertson drove a beater of a car that bore a MR. YUK license plate and always came to work in a three-piece suit — albeit one he might have purchased at Goodwill — and a plaid bow tie. Williams said Dr. Robertson's children had to go to great lengths to find him bow ties.

There was a small store in Lake Forest Park that sold Scottish attire, noted his son Doug Robertson, of Bellingham. "I think the only reason it stayed in business is he was always going in and ordering ties."

Dr. Robertson told his son that the males in his family died of heart attacks, so he exercised constantly. He would show up at a meeting at the UW in sweat clothes because he'd run there from Children's, and then he'd bike home to Lake Forest Park. He played tennis until he was 83, his son said, and even when he was living at University House he would walk around Green Lake.

Dr. Robertson wasn't exactly a healthful eater, however. Along with salt, he loved chocolate and fast food — for his 80th birthday, colleagues gave him salt packets, chocolates and an $80 gift certificate to McDonald's. Doug Robertson said his father once smoked, and that may have affected his sense of taste.

Dr. Robertson also published many books and articles. Williams said any time he would go to one of his children's sporting events he would also carry reading material.

"My classmates would say, 'there's your dad. How many journals did he bring today?' " said son Andy Robertson, of Redmond. "He also enjoyed books about the evolution of language. We could never get away with bad writing in our family."

His daughter, Kerry Kuenzi, of Redmond, said that while attending music performances, too, her father always had his journals. "That was always his passion in life," she said. "He was a servant to his students."

She said her father loved to share his passion for tennis with his children and grandchildren — but he never shared his salt.

Dr. Robertson told his son, Doug, who had a degree in economics, that he had a lifelong degree in economy. "He drove everybody at the U and at Children's crazy because he always watched his budgets," Doug said. "I don't know how he did it, but he got all five of his kids through college."

Dr. Robertson was also a strong advocate of medical marijuana and supported an initiative to legalize marijuana for terminally ill and chronically debilitated patients, and he also supported the initiative that allowed patients the right to die with dignity.

In addition to his sons and daughter, Dr. Robertson is survived by daughters Kathy Robertson, of Seattle, and Lynn Robertson, of Denver. Dr. Robertson's wife, Barbara Robertson, died in 2005.

The family is planning a memorial service in January.

In lieu of flowers, they ask that donations be made to the Washington Poison Center, 155 N.E. 100th St., Suite 100, Seattle, WA 98125 or Seattle Children's hospital, 4800 Sand Point Way N.E., Seattle, WA. 98105.

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com

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