Robert Ross, 86, Leader of Muscular Dystrophy Association

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Robert Ross, who died June 5 at 86, was chief executive of the Muscular Dystrophy Association for 44 years, during which he moved the organization from New York to Arizona and persuaded Jerry Lewis to lead its signature telethons.

Ross was a public relations man when he joined MDA in 1955; he was named executive director in 1962. He stayed at that job up until his death from pneumonia, after a fall.

Ross grew up in New York, and attended New York University. Upon graduation, he worked as a radio writer and publicist. Between 1942 and 1951, he worked for the State Department radio service, and for several years he wrote the English-language version of the morning news show “America Calling Europe.” It was Ross who suggested the name “Voice of America” for the program, according to the MDA.


Jerry Lewis had already been a celebrity spokesman for MDA when Ross persuaded him to host the first national MDA telethon on Labor Day, 1966. The event occasionally raises hackles within the disabled community for parading victims in near voyeuristic fashion, but Ross strongly defended the telethon in the press. It now runs on about 200 stations.

Under Ross’s leadership, MDA developed a network of 240 clinics for people with neuromuscular disease and greatly expanded its summer camp programs for children.

MDA-funded researchers have identified genetic causes for some two dozen neuromuscular diseases. The latest experiments involve gene therapy for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, the most common childhood killer form of the disease.


In 1990, Ross supervised the MDA’s move from its Manhattan headquarters to Tucson, Ariz., as a cost-saving measure. MDA has an annual budget of approximately $190 million.

Ross is survived by a sister, Charlotte Zand.

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