Not long after I joined The Skin Cancer Foundation a few months ago, our executive director, Dan Latore, gave me a daunting task. “We’d like to include a tribute to our founder in our annual magazine,” he said. That would be Perry Robins, MD, one of the most famous dermatologists in the world. “I think you should write it,” he said.
I’d seen his rather stern portrait hanging in our conference room. As a longtime journalist, I’d interviewed many accomplished men, from astronauts to Oscar winners, presidents to rock stars. “Hmm,” I thought. “How am I going to make a skin doctor seem interesting?”
I shouldn’t have worried.
For one thing, while he may seem intimidating to some, Dr. Robins is far from stern. He is charming, funny and a natural storyteller. He is surprisingly candid and self-effacing. And his life is pretty darn interesting.
From his humble beginnings in New Jersey during the Great Depression to the war years and beyond, Robins learned a lot of lessons the hard way. Both his parents worked, and so did he. He didn’t do well in school. He had dyslexia. He was bullied for being Jewish. He never thought he’d go to college. But he did.
He got into medical school in Germany and did well there. He learned to speak German and several other languages, and even found time to explore on his breaks (that’s him, above, circa 1958, at the Trevi Fountain in Rome). He returned to New York and proceeded to upend the conventional wisdom by showing dermatologists they could also be skin cancer surgeons. He fought the notion that sun exposure was healthy, started the Foundation and took his message around the globe. He learned to fly, invested in businesses, traveled the world, married and divorced twice, had two kids and amazing adventures. Most of it wasn’t easy, but he has had fun along the way.
I had fun hearing his story, too, as well as looking through his photos, covering eight decades, with Robert Priest (right), design director of the 2016 Skin Cancer Foundation Journal. Dr. Robins’ story in the Journal looked fantastic, thanks to Priest and his partner in design, Grace Lee. (You can also read it on our website.) And the response was so great, Dr. Robins is now working on a memoir!
We’ll be honoring Dr. Robins tonight at our Champions for Change Gala at the Mandarin Oriental New York for the exceptional contributions he has made to fighting skin cancer over the past half century. It’s our biggest fundraiser of the year and helps keep the Foundation moving forward. Far from slowing down, Dr. Robins is sure to talk about the work we still must do — and will do — to decrease the incidence of the world’s most common cancer.