A Tribute to Robert P. Heaney: A Remarkable Researcher and Human Being

  • Article
  • August 16, 2016

Dr. Robert P. Heaney passed away on August 6, 2016, at the age of 88, leaving a more than 50-year legacy of advancing nutrition and health research, scholarship, ethics and selfless engagement with colleagues and friends that is unsurpassed. He was a distinguished professor of medicine at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, where he worked for 55 years, and a world-renowned researcher in the fields of bone biology, osteoporosis, human calcium and vitamin D physiology. His expertise was sought in the development of nutrient requirements and public health recommendations, especially related to bone health. A global expert in vitamin D, he served as research director of GrassrootsHealth since 2012.

Dr. Heaney’s contribution to the advancement of science is substantial and no one will be able to completely fill his shoes. The best tribute we can pay him is to continue advocating for bone health and nutrition in the way he modelled for us.

Dr. Heaney was brilliant, but humble and approachable. He was generous with his time and knowledge and was able to make the most complicated topic understandable. No matter how many times we heard him speak, we always came away with a new insight. He was a master at using logic and critical thinking to lay out a scientific argument – and was instrumental to our understanding of nutritional adequacy and nutrient requirements. He thought deeply about nutrition science and how to improve it for the good of the public and recently published guidelines for designing and analyzing nutrition research studies.

Most importantly he cared for people. He was passionate about child health and the importance of kids getting enough calcium and vitamin D to reach a peak bone mass to help carry them through life. As an advocate of a “food first” approach to achieve nutrient adequacy, he continually supported the role of dairy foods in providing calcium, vitamin D and other nutrients needed for bone and overall health. He researched and shared his deep understanding of the critical role of calcium in the body, not only for bone health, but for its role in helping reduce the risk of chronic disease.  

Dr. Heaney was sought after as a speaker because of his amazing ability to teach and communicate about the science of nutrition in a practical way that applied to daily life. A few years ago, when giving a presentation at a nutrition meeting, technicians were not able to get his slides up on the screen – a nightmare for any speaker. He gave the entire presentation, interacting with the audience without his slides. He was so interesting and engaging that the audience of registered dietitians flocked to him afterward with their additional questions.

Knowing and working with Dr. Heaney through the years has been a gift. If you have not had the pleasure of knowing Dr. Heaney yourself, read the summary of his life and work in this memorial tribute  from Creighton University. 

This is a collective tribute written by Dr. Greg Miller and Jean Ragalie-Carr, RDN, LDN, FAND on behalf of the entire dairy community.