UI geography professor retires after 44 years

BY REBECCA MORIN | MAY 09, 2013 5:00 AM

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Geography professor Gerard Rushton was in his early 20s when he took the Queen Mary from England to New York and then the train to Chicago and beyond until he arrived to his destination: Iowa City. 

Rushton only expected to stay at the University of Iowa for one year; however, he ended up staying for more than 40 years, teaching and conducting research that created awareness of the privacy policies of cancer patient’s health records.

“The University of Iowa was very good and well-known and had the kind of geography I wanted to study,” he said. “I thought I was going to stay for one year, just to get the experience, but instead I stayed for three years and got a Ph.D.”

Rushton will retire after working for 44 years at the UI. A reception will be held in his honor on Friday in the IMU.

In June, Rushton will go to Washington, D.C., to sit on a national panel to read and vote on research proposals that deal with uncertainties in geographic information science.

More than 60 of Rushton’s colleagues will be present at the reception, said Cynthia Hernandez, undergraduate academic coordinator for the UI Geography Department.

“[Rushton] really wanted this to be more of a casual affair,” she said. “He wanted to specifically be with people that he has worked with over the years.”

Rushton enrolled at the UI in 1961 as a geography graduate student. Within three years, he earned a Ph.D.

He then went on to work at McMaster University in Canada in the Department of Geography for three years, and then at Michigan State University’s Computer Institute for Social Science Research for two years.

In August 1969, Rushton came back to the UI and worked as professor in the Geography Department.

Rushton’s field of expertise is geography of health, he said.

Rushton’s research included interdisciplinary elements, allowing him to work with many professors throughout the years.

Marc Armstrong, a geography professor and interim head of the Cinema and Comparative Literature Department, worked closely with Rushton on a research project that studied how people protect and keep confidential things such as cancer records.

“He created a number of innovative maps of cancer rates,” Armstrong said. “He’s a big loss to the department, and he has been a very high visibility faculty member.”

One of Rushton’s most popular research studies was the geographical patterns of cancer, especially in Iowa.  After meeting an epidemiology professor and the director of the Iowa Cancer Registry, Chuck Lynch, Rushton realized how good the Iowa cancer data were.

“I started geocoding; in this case, it was records of people with cancer, and that was the beginning of the ability of geography to connect the address of people to the earth coordinates or to GPS coordinates,” he said. “I was very familiar with that as a technology, and I was aware that you could take addresses from people from the cancer registry and that you could figure out where they lived.”

Another important development Rushton made was being one of the first people to develop a practical use for the geographic information system.

Rushton currently has four graduate students that he is teaching. One, Kevin Matthews, came to the UI to work with Rushton and has been here since 2005.

“[Rushton] will be an emeritus professor for one year after and still be on for my dissertation committee,” Matthews said. “I don’t expect to see any less of him after his retirement.”

Rushton is looking forward to his retirement, as well as his colleagues and students.

“I know he will still be there for me, but I think his retirement is great,” Matthews said. “He deserves it.”

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