A Pediatric Giant Cherry-Picked from Rural Michigan
Reilly Wilson Sep 22, 2021
“Giants in their field,” was a term Dr. Marilyn Bull used to describe two of her mentors at Boston Floating Hospital back when she was just starting her journey in medicine. Would she have ever guessed that she would be in that position herself? From her advocacy for women in medicine and child safety, to being recognized on a global level for her work in safe automotive transportation of children and Down syndrome and serving on several boards for international organizations, it is safe to say that she has now become a giant in her field.
Although it is hard to summarize the illustrious career that Dr. Bull has had, her recognition and story is one worth telling: her time growing up with her family on their farm, pushing the norms of the male dominated field of medicine, and becoming a leading authority in pediatric medicine.
From her humble beginnings in Casnovia and Shelby, Michigan, Bull was the oldest of four children, which meant being delegated many of the responsibilities from an early age. Her family’s cherry and apple farm required much of their attention. Most days her routine consisted of coming home from school, changing clothes, and returning to the orchard to pick-up drop apples that would be transported to Gerber’s Baby Food Processing plant that was just north of where they lived.
She may have lived on a farm, but Bull had different expectations as to what a farm should be. “I always felt a little cheated as though we lived on a farm, there really were no animals, and to me that was what a real farm was,” said Bull.
Her summers were consumed with working on the farm, selling fruit at their road-side stand, and 4-H activities. This is where she learned flower gardening, photography, sewing, knitting, and baking. Bull remembers her father saying that she needed more practice baking so he could continue getting samples.
Throughout high school, she would also work in the orchard picking-up apples or supervise the migrant workers during harvest. “I learned a great deal about diversity and value of education through these experiences. It gave me such a broader perspective,” she recalled. Bull attributes her values and work ethic to her rural upbringing and admitted she quickly came to realize that everything is not under our control and that we must adapt accordingly.
After her first year at Michigan State University, Bull convinced her parents to let her sell her pies along with the cherries at her stand. Her parents agreed and after seeing how successful she was, her father soon upgraded their fruit stand to a new cold storage building that included space for a bakery. “I would bake up to 95 pies a day and the demand was always greater than I could supply,” shared Bull, “This was my job through the first two years of medical school and the beginning of the now famous business that was built by my sister known as Cherry Point.”
Bull revealed that her recipe for her cherry pie varied depending on the nature of the lard that goes into the crust and the sweetness of the cherries. She also includes tapioca for the filling and recommended almond for flavoring. These pie sales helped Dr. Bull to pay for her medical school tuition, which totaled about $700 dollars a semester.
Bull was no stranger to Michigan State by the time she attended the university. Her father was a horticulture graduate alum and he collaborated with their horticulture department to open the first commercial controlled apple storage in Michigan, which meant fruit harvested in the fall could now be marketed in the spring and would bring more stable prices for the product. Being a state winner in 4-H also led Bull to attend workshops and competitions at MSU and she was able to attend several football games on campus. As a Presidential Scholar, Bull earned a place in the Honors College, which gave her great diversity in course selection, top professors, and waived other major and minor requirements.
After completing her undergrad, Bull recalled being “apprehensive, but honored,” as one of the twenty-three women accepted into the University of Michigan’s medical school. Michigan and Wayne State were the only two options for colleges that had a school of human medicine in the state at that time, so Bull had limited options if she wanted to remain in-state. Bull commented, “Medical school is now a blur except for the lifelong friendships that were nurtured there.” Of those initial twenty-three women, thirteen ended up graduating.
Although Bull recalled being anxious about there only being fifteen other women in the program, she felt supported by the university’s female faculty. During Bull’s time at Michigan the female faculty even sponsored a medical sorority for women, where Bull served as house manager, which helped pay for room and board.
Residency at Children’s Memorial Hospital of Chicago followed Bull’s time at Michigan. She described her time there as an amazing experience. “I was well founded in the basics of pediatrics, learned a little medical Spanish out of necessity and the basics of home nursing by making home visits with the Public Health nurses,” said Bull, “I actually started as an undifferentiated physician in a rotating internship, but after serving in the Emergency Department, one month of internal medicine, and then a month of pediatrics, my fate was sealed.” Bull’s work was quickly recognized by the Chair of Children’s Memorial Hospital, and he asked her if she would join them as a second-year resident in pediatrics, which she accepted immediately.
“My biggest project of internship was meeting my now husband of fifty years,” gushed Bull. Dr. Scott Bruins, Bull’s husband, was in the same internship and sat next to her on their first day. “He talked to me the entire morning and I was impressed that he was from Johns Hopkins and so friendly,” Bull shared, “As rotations were mostly twenty-four hours on, followed by twenty-four hours off, we found bribing the chief’s secretary to put us on simultaneous rotations an important endeavor.”
Bull transitioned from Children’s to Boston Floating Hospital, now known as Tufts Children’s Hospital, which she described as, “a very special place in my career development.” This is where she was mentored by the “giants in their field,” Drs. Murray Feingold and Sidney Gellis in Birth Defects and Genetic Counseling. Bull noted, “It was there I learned the skills of family centered care and caring for children with disabilities, especially Down syndrome.” Bull continued at Tufts for three additional years as junior faculty.
Since her time in Boston, Bull has now made a home at Riley Children’s Hospital here in Indianapolis, Indiana. Bull joined the faculty in October of 1976 right after her first daughter was born. “I have had many diverse responsibilities at IU ranging from Newborn Follow-up, initiating the Section of Developmental Pediatrics, doing outreach clinics in South Bend since about 1982, founding the Automotive Safety Program in 1981, and developing the Feeding Team and the Down Syndrome Program,” On top of all of that, Bull has also served as the Director of the Section of Developmental Pediatrics, is on faculty as a Neurodevelopmental Physician in the Division of Developmental Pediatrics, is serving as Co-Medical Director for the Automotive Safety Program that she founded, and facilitated the creation of the Women’s Advisory Council for the Indiana University School of Medicine. She is currently the Morris Green Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics and is the longest practicing pediatrician at Riley.
Between her clinical and scholarly work at Indiana University School of Medicine and Riley Children’s Hospital, Bull has been responsible for helping write some of the laws legislating car seat regulations and has participated in writing the national curriculum for car seat technicians. She has even lobbied government agencies to fund car seat programs. Car seat safety, especially for children with special health care needs, remains one of her top priorities and for good reasons.
Motor vehicle injuries are the leading cause of death for children in the United States, but studies have shown that car seats are 70% effective in preventing severe injury. The death rate for children involved in motor vehicle crashes has fallen 46% since 1978. “My greatest contribution at the moment is serving as president of AAAM; Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine, which is an international organization of physicians and engineers working together to reduce road traffic injury and death worldwide,” exclaimed Bull. She has presented her work and advocacy for child passenger safety all over the world including Paris, Munich, Qatar, and Australia. Car seat safety, especially for those with special medical needs, will remain as one of her enduring legacies.
“Through our pioneering work in child passenger safety, Riley Hospital has developed the premier program for safe transportation for all children including the National Center for Safe Transportation of Children with Special Needs,” Bull recapped, “I have been able to contribute to that endeavor through work with the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, the National Association of State Emergency Services Association, Governors Highway Safety Association and the Association for Advancement of Automotive Medicine among others.”
Bull also makes time to serve and support various organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine (AAAM), American Academy of Cerebral Palsy and Developmental Medicine (AACPDM), Emergency Medical Services for Children (EMSC), and various medical centers throughout the U.S. She is author and reviewer for several medical publications and peer-reviewed journals and most recently authored the AAP’s Health Care Guidance for Children with Down Syndrome originally published in 2011, which is up for revision with the organizations Board of Directors.
Bull was honored by being presented with the Huelke Lifetime Member award from the AAAM. She said this was a special treat for her as he was an early mentor for her at the University of Michigan. Later, Dr. Bull also received the C. Everett Koop award for her distinguished service from Safe Kids World Wide. In 2015, she was selected as the U.S. Department of Transportation and White House “Transportation Champion of Change” honoree. Bull has also been inducted by her peers into the Manufacturers Alliance Child Passenger Safety’s Hall of Fame Class in 2018.
Between all the boards, committees, and her work at Riley, Dr. Bull still says she uses what spare time she has for knitting, sewing, and baking, which were skills she developed in childhood, but still brings her joy today. Pre-COVID, she enjoyed traveling with her husband to various places around the world that usually were planned in accordance with her invitations to speak at various conventions. “I do not think the secret is dividing time but rather juggling the causes and selecting priorities,” Bull said in response to dividing her time to all of these commitments, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well and to the best of one’s ability. Taking time for family and relaxation is essential but must be scheduled deliberately.” That is well said for one of the most preeminent and hardworking giants in the field Pediatrics.
Reilly Wilson is an administrative assistant for the Department of Pediatrics. He primarily works with Pediatric Hospitalist Medicine, but his role allows him to help with special projects throughout the department.