A native Texan, Robert Parkey grew up in the small town of Krum, located less than an hour's drive from Dallas. He attended the University of Texas at Austin, where he received a bachelor's degree in physics. He then returned to North Texas to pursue his medical degree at UT Southwestern, a place that would transform his life.
Following his 1965 graduation, Dr. Parkey completed his residency training in diagnostic radiology at Parkland hospital. At the suggestion of Frederick Bonte, then chair of radiology at UT Southwestern, he and his family left Texas so he could pursue a fellowship in radiological data processing at the University of Missouri. The program was sponsored by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.
"Fred is my mentor and the one who steered me into academic radiology and nuclear medicine," Dr. Parkey said. "He deserves credit for not just recruiting me, but also recruiting the Curry brothers, Bill Kilman and many others."
After returning to UT Southwestern in 1970, Dr. Parkey began a distinguished career that would span decades at the medical center. In 1971, the prestigious National Research Council named him a James Picker Foundation Scholar in Radiology Research for his work investigating small computer processing of scintigram data.
When Bonte became dean of UT Southwestern Medical School, Dr. Parkey became chief of nuclear medicine. Working with Bonte and James Willerson, he helped develop a nuclear scanning technique that allowed viewing and imaging of a myocardial infarct. The technique would be used all over the world to diagnose, localize, and measure acute heart attacks. It was also one of the most sensitive non-invasive ways then available to identify dead heart tissue.
"We got a lot of publications and I did a lot of traveling," Dr. Parkey recalled. "It was something completely new and responsible for most of my papers."
In 1977, department chair Robert Berk resigned to become chair of radiology at the University of California–San Diego. Dr. Parkey, who was still in his 30s, was appointed acting chair. After several months, the search committee determined he should hold the position permanently.
After deep reflection, Dr. Parkey accepted.
Shortly after his appointment, Dr. Parkey, working with Willerson, discovered "dynamic blood pool imaging," a technique involving injection of a chemical compound that tagged red blood cells with a small amount of radioactivity as they circulated throughout the bloodstream.
Up to this time the only way to obtain this information was by cardiac catheterization, an invasive procedure especially risky for those who recently had heart attacks. Dynamic blood pool imaging proved to be faster, safer and more accurate. Additionally, the radioactive label remained in the bloodstream for several hours, allowing other tests to be conducted.
As department chair, Dr. Parkey recruited and retained talented faculty, fellows, residents, technologists, and staff. His power of persuasion was evident in the successful negotiations he conducted for equipment and grants. Often credited with having the foresight to understand MRI's potential importance, Dr. Parkey strongly advocated bringing a clinical unit to UT Southwestern.
"Historically the department always had generous support from grants and donors," Dr. Parkey said. "But radiologists are always facing the challenge of getting the latest technology and it's the radiologist who has to inspire others to also want the latest technology."
Dr. Parkey always campaigned for the things he believed in, especially his faculty. Those who became directors in his department usually received a copy of John Whitney's The Trust Factor, a book about how success is adversely affected by mistrust between managers and employees.
"I judge people by whether they're a good human being," Dr. Parkey said. "If they're a good human being, then everything else falls into place. If not, you have to let them go. No one can afford to be tied up by bad folks who burn valuable energy."
Despite increasing responsibilities as chairman, Dr. Parkey continued teaching. He received top teaching honors from UT Southwestern students several times, something he considered a great honor.
Dr. Parkey was also proud that the Department of Radiology was recognized as an employer of the year, in 1989, by The Arc of the United States, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
From 1994 to 2010, Dr. Parkey held the Effie and Wofford Cain Distinguished Chair in Diagnostic Imaging. In 2007, Parkland hospital honored him with its Hero of Our Heritage Award.
"The people who work at Parkland are dedicated to helping the underserved," Dr. Parkey said. "My goal was to always make sure the hospital had the best possible radiology diagnostics available. You go to Parkland and you'll get the same quality of medicine from faculty and staff as you would at the other hospitals. If you've worked at Parkland, it's in your blood."
Throughout his tenure as chair, Dr. Parkey had a front row seat as both medical imaging and UT Southwestern experienced unprecedented growth. In terms of medical imaging, magnetic resonance technology advanced from the first full body scan of a human in 1977 to highly detailed brain mapping. As for UT Southwestern, the Biomedical Magnetic Resonance Center, the Mary Nell and Ralph B. Rogers Magnetic Resonance Center, Zale Lipshy University Hospital, and the Bill and Rita Clements Advanced Medical Imaging Building were all constructed during his more than 30 years as department chair.
Dr. Parkey's retirement in 2010 coincided with his being presented a Lifetime Service Award from the American Board of Radiology, followed by a 2012 Gold Medal from the Texas Radiological Society. Yet he considered his greatest accomplishment the many students and residents he trained through the years.
At the time of the Department of Radiology's 60th anniversary, Dr. Parkey celebrated his 40-year association with the department along with his wife, Nancy, their three children and grandchildren.