Robert P. Heaney, M.D., a distinguished professor of medicine, world-renowned researcher in the field of bone biology and vitamin D and the first holder of the John A. Creighton University Professorship, at Creighton University, has died of brain cancer.
It was passion that drove Heaney in all he did. First, a passion for the sciences, where he looked beyond the lab for answers in nutrition and bone health. Second, a passion for scripture, as a frequent contributor to Creighton University’s “Daily Reflections.” Finally, his passion for Creighton, where he was a proud Bluejay for 69 years until his death on Aug. 6.
Recognized by the National Osteoporosis Foundation as a “Legend of Osteoporosis,” Heaney worked with the Institute of Medicine to determine a recommended daily dose of calcium. His research elevated the conversation on the importance of calcium and vitamin D in bone-loss prevention. His contributions to the medical community brought osteoporosis into everyday conversation as an important medical condition to watch for in women.
His honors, among many others, include: the Lifetime Achievement for Research Award from Creighton University, the Kappa Delta Award from the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, the E.V. McCollum Award of the American Society for Clinical Nutrition, the Frederic C. Bartter Award of the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research and the Institute Candia Scientific Prize from France.
“Dr. Heaney’s life had a beautiful form to it and in passing from this earthly life, his legacy seems all the more beautiful and we are more greatly enriched as people, as a university, for having known him and shared in his passions and wisdom,” said University President the Rev. Daniel Hendrickson, SJ. “He was a man of many facets. A healer, a thinker, a man of faith, he was endlessly curious about his profession and the people he helped, the world around him, and his God.”
Heaney was born in Omaha on Nov. 10, 1927. His time at Creighton began with high school in 1941, attending Creighton Preparatory School in the back of what’s now Creighton Hall, before the school moved onto its own campus.
Post-graduation, he didn’t venture far from Prep, enrolling in Creighton’s College of Arts and Sciences and earning a bachelor’s degree in 1947 and his medical degree from the School of Medicine in 1951.
Although he spent a few years away from his beloved school for his medical residencies, he returned in 1957 as a faculty member and administrator, and stayed for 55 years.
Heaney was the chairman of the Department of Internal Medicine at Creighton, the first vice president for Health Sciences and the inaugural holder of the John A. Creighton professorship from 1984 to 2014.
Robert Recker, M.D., head of Creighton University’s Osteoporosis Research Center, said Heaney was his mentor for more than 50 years.
“His dedication to research, to Creighton and to the Jesuit culture has been an inspiration to me, and to all those who were touched by his mentorship and scholarship the past half century,” Recker said. “I was attracted to a research career at Creighton under his mentorship, because I regarded his research as the best at Creighton. I have since come to regard it as the best osteoporosis research in the world.”
Outside of the lab, Heaney was deeply invested in his spiritual life. Other than writing daily reflections for Creighton, he also wrote articles for the monthly Catholic magazine, America and for Creighton Magazine.
It was his faith that led him to his first wife, Dr. Barbara Reardon Heaney. Upon inauguration of a chair in Pastoral Liturgical Theology named for his late wife, Heaney recalled his initial attraction to her in a Creighton magazine article.
“While we were students in Creighton’s School of Medicine, I noticed several pieces of liturgical art — holy cards, bookmarks and such — spilling from her book bag. I remember thinking, ‘Now there’s someone who likes the things I think are important,’” he said.
He is survived by his brother C. E Heaney of Omaha and seven children: sons, Dr. Robert M. Heaney of St. Louis, Christopher J. Heaney of Omaha and daughters, Rachel Dowd, Marian Ghislaine Heaney, Margaret R. Heaney and Elizabeth J. Erhardt, all of Omaha, and Barbara L. Heaney of New York. Survivors also include his second wife, Janet Barger Heaney, 14 grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and two step-grandchildren.
Memorials are suggested to the Creighton University Catholic Social Teaching Project.
Visitation is at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 9 at St. John's Church on the Creighton campus followed by a vigil liturgy at 7 p.m. Funeral Mass is 10 a.m. Wednesday.