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Isabelle Rapin (1927-2017)

Rapin's career started with the study of children with speech disorders, hearing impairment and deafness - and led to the evaluation of hundreds of children with autistic spectrum disorder and an improved understanding of autism as a neuropsychological disorder.

Isabelle Rapin was born in Lausanne, Switzerland, and remained in Switzerland for medical school – one of a dozen women in her class of 1952. After a 12 week rotation in Paris, with neurologists at the Salpêtrière and the Hôpital des Enfants, she knew she would one day be a neurologist for children.

To specialize, Rapin needed a neurology residency, which was easier to find in the United States than in Switzerland. She wrote to four medical schools, and while she received no response from Harvard, Yale, or Johns Hopkins, she was offered a position in pediatrics at Bellevue Hospital. Once there, she applied for another residency in neurology at Columbia-Presbyterian. 

At Columbia, she developed her interest in hearing loss and language delay in children. After she joined the faculty at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in 1958, she received a grant from the NIH to study event-related potentials in children with hearing loss. 

A year later, she married Harold Oaklander, with whom she had four children - including Anne Louise Oaklander, a neurologist who specializes in chronic pain and small-fiber neuropathy.

With Doris Allen (1901-2002), a psychologist and speech pathologist, Rapin developed a classification of developmental language disorders. She published extensively on issues related to autistic spectrum disorders, including epilepsy, genetics, motor stereotypies, neurodevelopmental testing, language and communication disorders, and auditory neuropathies. 

She was a founding member of the Child Neurology Society and a member of the first executive board of the International Child Neurology Association.

Rapin was a close friend and colleague of neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks (1933-2015). In one memoir, written by Lawrence Weschler, he calls her his “conscience and reality.” In his autobiography On the Move: A Life, he writes “Isabelle would never permit me, any more than she permitted herself, any loose, exaggerated, uncorroborated statements. ‘Give me the evidence,” she always says.” 

Rapin retired in 2012, at the age of 82, but remained involved with teaching and lectures for the rest of her life. The renamed Isabelle Rapin Division of Child Neurology at Montefiore-Einstein is a testament to her many achievements in pediatric neurology.

Rapin, Isabelle (2001). Isabelle Rapin: An Autobiography. Journal of Child Neurology 16(5):352-356.

Essay by Alison Christy, MD, PhD