Robert Columbus Lancaster, M.D. died on March 17, 2020 at Tulane Medical Center after a brief bout with the COVID-19 virus. Born in Bolton, Mississippi on November 8, 1921, he was a long-time resident of New Orleans. Beloved and esteemed by those fortunate to know him, he was affectionately referred to as “Dr. Bob.”
The oldest of six children born to C.D. and Lottie Lancaster, Robert grew up in a small rural Mississippi town during the Depression. The close family and community ties he experienced there became an essential part of his nurturing nature. He graduated from Mississippi College and then matriculated at Tulane Medical School where he graduated in 1945. His keen intellect, avid interest in the way the mind works, and passion for caring for the emotional health of others led him to the study of psychiatry, a field to which he invaluably contributed for seventy years.
Helping soldiers returning stateside after their engagement in WW II, he worked at the VA Hospital in Gulfport, MS; it was there he met Sara Stewart, a nurse, his first wife and mother of his two children. Robert’s distinguished professional career ranged over 70 years and included being president of the Louisiana Psychiatric Association, teaching at Tulane Medical School, and serving as medical director for 25 years at the psychiatric facility DePaul Hospital. His excellence at mentoring and inspiring psychiatry residents at Tulane was recognized by the creation of the Robert C. Lancaster Award which was annually given to the individual deemed by the staff to be “the most caring among graduating psychiatric residents.” A plaque that he was presented at the dedication of a building at DePaul named in his honor was inscribed with the words "Physician, teacher, and a devoted friend to the patients and staff of DePaul Hospital.”
Beyond his professional activities, Robert was actively involved in all aspects—spiritual, charitable, and educational—of his community. During the turbulent 1960s, he served on various committees to facilitate the non-violent integration of the New Orleans public schools. Helping physicians who struggled with drug abuse and ensuring quality daycare were just two of the Issues he cared deeply about. He and his second wife Shirley found a spiritual home at Rayne Memorial United Methodist Church. There Robert taught and attended Sunday School classes, sat on the church’s board and numerous committees, and put into daily practice the credo of doing all you can for as many people as you can for as long as you can. Perhaps his proudest accomplishment in his church was his role as a founding member of Luke’s House Free Clinic medical ministry. Founded in the catastrophic wake of Hurricane Katrina, Luke’s House sought to be “a place of medical and spiritual hope, health and healing for the people of Greater New Orleans.” Into his early 90s, Dr. Bob actively volunteered over 600 clinic hours and to this day remains an inspiration for those who continue his work there.
In addition to the hundreds of patients he treated, he Influenced, helped, and inspired countless others. Family members of all ages, members of the medical community, co-workers, and neighbors frequently sought him out for his wise counsel and his charming company. A gentle, humble man with a welcoming smile, Dr. Bob had the gift of making people feel that they were the only person in the room who mattered. One of his admirers described him as being “everyone’s grandfather—or the grandfather you wished you had.” Attending any Tulane sporting event, cheering for the Red Sox, cultivating oranges in his garden, reading (he considered Shakespeare to be “the first psychiatrist because he understand the dual nature of humans”), mixing the perfect Old Fashion, and relishing his nightly bowl of chocolate ice cream were just some of the things that he enjoyed. Above all, his family was everything to him—and he was everything to them.
Dr. Lancaster is predeceased by his wife of 32 years, Shirley Nichols Lancaster and is survived by his son Michael S. Lancaster (Marjorie) of Chapel Hill, NC., daughter Deborah Lancaster of Houston Texas, and stepdaughter Hillary Nichols of Richmond Texas. He took great joy in his grandchildren Elizabeth Lancaster, Eric Sullivan (Courtney), Mathew Sullivan, and Will Lancaster (Paige), and his great grandchildren, Rowan Sullivan, Isabel Lancaster, and Olivia Lancaster.
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