Obituary: Dr. Ralph Sacco, renowned Imperial University neurologist, dies at 65

University of Miami neurologist Dr. Ralph Sacco was the only physician to serve as president of the American Heart Association and the American Academy of Neurology.  He died at the age of 65.

University of Miami neurologist Dr. Ralph Sacco was the only physician to serve as president of the American Heart Association and the American Academy of Neurology. He died at the age of 65.

Courtesy of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine

Everyone knew when Dr. Ralph Sacco was in the halls.

Much like the Energizer rabbit, the famous University of Miami neurologist was always on the go, hopping in and out of meetings with patients and staff, conducting research, and attending lectures.

His passion for advancing stroke research and training the next generation of medical students fueled his endless energy.

“I always admired the way he would do it—no matter how busy he was and how many appointments he had, clinics and travels, amazing leadership positions in professional societies all over the world—he would always find time for his interns and interns,” said Dr. UM has known Saco for over 25 years. She is the Scientific Director of the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute and the Evelyn F. McKnight Chair for Learning and Memory in Aging at University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

The beloved physician–and the only physician to serve as president of the American Heart Association and the American Academy of Neurology–died at 65 on Tuesday of a brain tumor, at his home on Long Island, New York. Loved ones say letters poured in from all over the world, remembering a man who somehow found the time to do it all.

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Dr. Ralph Sacco, left, reviews a patient with vascular neurology intern Dr. Hartig Sethi, right, at the University of Miami. Dr. Sacco was the first neurologist to chair the American Heart Association. Miami Herald Archives

He had a “sincere desire to help others, but also always looking at the big picture, wanting to know how he could move the needle forward,” said Dr. Jose Romano, who is now acting department chair of the College of Medicine. From neuroscience.

Sacco grew up in New Jersey, where he occasionally worked in his family’s subsidiary store. He majored in bioelectrical engineering at Cornell University and attended Boston University School of Medicine, where he helped mentor Dr. Philip A. Wolfe collect and interpret data for the Framingham Heart Study, which would become the nation’s longest-running study on the risk of cardiovascular disease beginning in 1948.

He worked to address disparities in care and founded the Northern Manhattan Stroke Study, a study of underserved and understudied Black and Hispanic populations. His career eventually led him to Miami, where he became chair of the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Miami. He also held the Olimburg Family Chair in Neurological Disorders, was Professor of Neurology, Public Health Sciences, Human Genetics, and Neurosurgery, and became Chief of Neurology at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami.

became executive director of the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute, which focuses on advancing clinical care and research in age-related memory loss and cognitive decline, founded the Miami Institute for Clinical and Translational Sciences, founded the Florida Stroke Registry and became the founding principal investigator of the Florida and Puerto Rico Collaboration to Reduce Stroke Disparities and Study Familial risk of stroke and carotid atherosclerosis.

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Dr. Tatjana Rundeck, scientific director of the University of Miami’s Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute, with her longtime mentor, Dr. Ralph Sacco, a University of Miami neurologist. Courtesy of Dr. Tatjana Rondek

Dr. Sacco’s accomplishments and outstanding contributions to research, education, counseling, and patient care have had a lasting impact on health care in South Florida, the nation, and the world. His work has been integral to advances in overall brain health, stroke, and the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease, Help advance health equity, create more targeted stroke prevention programs, improve outcomes, and improve quality of life for stroke patients,” the Miami Miller School of Medicine said in an online post announcing his death. “Dr. Sacco’s collaborative research has advanced understanding of stroke, cardiovascular and brain health, and helped clarify the impact of modifiable behaviors, such as alcohol consumption and physical activity, on stroke risk.”

He has published more than 1,000 peer-reviewed articles, was editor-in-chief of the peer-reviewed scientific journal Stroke for the American Heart Association and has received awards, certifications, and lifetime achievements.

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Ralph L. Sacco, MD, a neurologist at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, speaks during a forum at the Donna Shalala Student Center on Friday, June 9, 2017, with a focus on improving access to health care in Latin America. The Miami Herald File

He was an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine and became the first neurologist to serve as president of the American Heart Association, from 2010 to 2011.

Despite all of his accomplishments, loved ones say Sacco was a humble man who always put others first. While he led a busy life, he also found time for family, friends, and other passions, such as architectural design.

Dr. Ralph Sacco and his wife, Scott Dutcher. Courtesy of Scott Dutcher

“My heart burned. Twenty-two years together, and now he’s gone,” said his wife, Scott Dutcher. “The love he gave will remain in my heart and in the hearts of all who touched him. He won’t forget.”

Memorial services are still being arranged and will be announced at a later date. Sacco is supported by his Dutch husband, father, and four brothers.

This story was originally published Jan 20, 2023 3:44 PM.

Michelle Marchant is the Miami Herald health correspondent. She previously covered all things Florida for the Herald as a real-time/breaking news reporter. She is an honors graduate of Florida International University, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of Student Media PantherNOW. She previously worked as a news writer for WSVN Channel 7 and was the 2020-2021 Poynter-Koch Media & Journalism Fellow.

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