Ruth Sullivan: Mother of Seven, Nurse, Veteran, Scientist, and Autism Pioneer
By John V. Schloss, PhD
For Women’s History Month (March 1-31), I would like to honor the memory of an extraordinary friend and colleague from Huntington, West Virginia, Dr. Ruth Christ Sullivan. Ruth died on September 16, 2021, at 97, leaving behind a remarkable legacy. Before serving in the Army Nurse Corps during World War II, she obtained her nursing degree from Charity Hospital, New Orleans, in 1943. At age 60, she received a Ph.D. in special education, speech pathology, and psychology from Ohio University. Between her education in nursing and her doctoral degree, the birth of her fifth child, Joseph, transformed Ruth’s life into a crusade for autism. Joe Sullivan was diagnosed as autistic at the age of 3 in 1963. At that time, there were many misconceptions about autism. “Refrigerator mothers,” who were cold and distant, received blame for autism. Ruth Sullivan knew this was not the cause of Joe’s problem.
Her efforts to understand autism led to a collaboration with psychologist Bernard Rimland, who also had an autistic son. Together they founded the National Society for Autistic Children, which later became the Autism Society. Ruth’s son Joe was one of several role models for Dustin Hoffman’s character Raymond Babbitt in the movie Rain Man. Ruth Sullivan served as a technical advisor for the film. Ruth’s prominence in the field of autism research resulted in her receiving a wealth of anecdotal information on dietary supplements that help improve the symptoms of autistic children. I was fortunate to get to know Dr. Sullivan after joining Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. We were interested in various nutritional supplements and diets’ effects on autistic children. Ruth and I spent working lunches discussing various dietary approaches that might help alleviate the symptoms of different subpopulations of those who have autism. My wife, Marietta, and I were guests in Ruth’s home several times, where we met her son Joe. Although Joe Sullivan was very shy, he did manage to tell Marietta that he liked her almond cookies. Ruth Sullivan was a devoted Catholic. A retired priest from the Woodlands Retirement Community, where my mother also resided, was a frequent guest at her family gatherings. Ruth Sullivan was an inspiring and unforgettable person. Counting her among our Huntington, West Virginia, friends was an honor.