By Scot Macdonald
Robert E. Tranquada, MD, long-time member of the USC faculty and dean of the Keck School of Medicine of USC from 1986 to 1991 passed away on December 4, 2022, at the age of 92. He was a diabetes researcher turned public health advocate who was instrumental in increasing access to health care for underserved communities across Los Angeles County.
Early in his long career at USC, Dr. Tranquada led the creation of the Department of Community Medicine. As associate dean of the Keck School, he was the architect of consolidating various departments into the L.A. Department of Health Services and played a key role in developing the health administration program at USC. As dean, he negotiated a new master agreement with the County for the provision of care at L.A. County+USC Medical Center, adopted a new faculty governance model that empowered the medical faculty, and significantly increased enrollment of underrepresented students. He also led the creation of a new private teaching hospital—Keck Hospital of USC. As a nationally recognized leader, he chaired the American Association of Medical College’s Council of Deans.
Dr. Allen Mathies, who succeeded Dr. Tranquada as dean, said “Bob served the Keck School in a number of ways; as medical director of the L.A. County+USC Hospital when almost all of the clinical training was in that institution; as founding chair of the Department of Community Medicine; and demonstrating USC’s commitment to the community by establishing the Watts Clinic. When he returned as dean he was faced with the challenge of staffing the new University Hospital. In each of these roles he brought his strengths of listening and analysis before completing the task. He was a great friend and colleague who will be sorely missed.”
Dr. Clive Taylor, chair of USC Pathology from 2004 to 2009, said, “It is a rare good fortune in life to meet a person whose impact upon the people around him is so universally positive. Bob Tranquada was such a person. I was privileged to know Bob as dean of the Keck School, and later as a colleague on a number of voluntary service committees, a close neighbor, and as a friend and partner on the tennis courts in South Pasadena, his long-term home. On the tennis courts, one saw Bob as the man he was: not the best player or the hardest hitting, but always the most sought after as doubles partner. He played the game as he played life—with perfect grace, invariably honest and honorable, with himself and with others, with compassion and unfailing good humor. The Keck School was a better place for his time of service there, and many of us were better persons.”
A Long and Distinguished Career
Born in Los Angeles, the son of a Los Angeles Unified School District administrator and a homemaker, Tranquada grew up in Pico Rivera. Hospitalized with a broken leg at age five, he was so impressed with his doctors that he decided to become a physician. After graduating from Pomona College and Stanford Medical School, he joined the faculty of USC Medical School in 1959. As a diabetes specialist, he treated actor Spencer Tracy and served as an expert witness in the trial of serial killer William Archerd, the first person in the United States to be convicted of using insulin as a murder weapon.
His career took a dramatic turn in 1965. After the National Guard medical battalion he commanded was activated during the Watts Uprising, he was asked by then-USC Medical School Dean Roger Egeberg to head a new department of community and preventative medicine whose first task would be to organize a public health clinic in Watts.
“The trials and tribulations of getting the clinic going were a profound personal experience,” Tranquada said in a 1979 interview with Stanford MD. “I thought the Black community would be grateful for the commitment of an institution such as USC, and someone like myself. Well, they weren’t. I had my whole perspective rearranged and gained considerable humility.”
His experience launching and becoming the first director of the clinic, the South Central Multipurpose Health Services Center in 1965 (now the Watts Healthcare Corporation), led to a 40-year career in public health. He was an effective advocate for increasing the number of women and people of color in medicine, serving as a long-time member of the board of National Medical Fellowships, a member of the founding board of Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, and a member of Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital board.
In 1967, as associate dean of the medical school, Tranquada was appointed medical director of Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. It was during his tenure that Dr. Gale Anderson organized the country’s first academic department of emergency medicine. After five years as medical director, he became regional director of the Central Health Services Region of the L.A. County Department of Health Services.
After serving as associate dean for regional and postgraduate medical education at UCLA, he became chancellor-dean of the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in 1979, where he oversaw the development of its relatively young school of medicine. In 1986, he became dean of USC Medical School with a mandate to develop a new private teaching hospital–today’s Keck Hospital of USC. It was while serving as dean that he was appointed to the Independent Commission on the L.A. Police Department, better known as the Christopher Commission, formed in the wake of the Rodney King beating. He headed the Los Angeles County Taskforce on Access to Healthcare in the wake of the 1992 civil unrest, which led to the creation of Community Health Councils, the non-profit organization that works to promote health and wellness in under-resourced communities. He was also a founding board member and chair of L.A. Care, today the country’s largest publicly operated health plan.
After stepping down as dean in 1991, he joined the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy and served as chair of USC’s health administration program until he retired in 1997.
Dr. Dana Goldman, dean of the Price School, said, “Bob Tranquada joined the Price School as the first holder of the National Medical Enterprise Chair in Medicine and Public Policy—the same chair that attracted me to USC. He brought his rich experience in medicine, community health and public policy to the Price School, and with his wise counsel enriched our community and led the master of health administration program until his retirement.”
Dr. Tranquada was a member of the National Academy of Medicine of the National Academy of Science, and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
In addition to his career in public health, Tranquada played a leadership role in higher education, philanthropy and other areas. He was chair of the Pomona College Board of Trustees, chair of the board of the Claremont University Consortium, and served on the boards of the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, the Good Hope Medical Foundation, the Huntington Medical Research Institutes, and the Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences, among others.
Survivors include Janet, his wife of 71 years; children John (Lisa), Jim (Kristin) and Kate; grandchildren Matt, Jessica and Alex Tranquada; and his sister, Carolyn Prestwich.
The family asks that memorial gifts be made to the Keck School’s Department of Population and Public Health Sciences (PPHS). To support our PPHS program, please click here.