Doctor grew up poor and made it big thinking outside the box

By Debra Tash

Dr. Robert Klapper speaking at Republican Women's meeting

Dr. Robert Klapper speaking at Republican Women’s meeting

Doctor Robert Klapper was keynote speaker at the Thousand Oaks Republican Women’s Sunday brunch on April 12th at the Westlake Inn.  Doctor Klapper is chief orthopedic surgeon at Cedars Sinai Hospital as well as being an inventor and an artist.

He grew up in Far Rockaway, a working class neighborhood in the borough of Queens, New York.  His dad,  a World War 2 vet,  was a postal worker who moonlighted as a carpenter.  The family was always in debt and his mom had to get a job as a nurse.  The Klappers had three daughters when the first of their two sons was born in 1955.  That boy had a birth defect, a hole in his heart and he died at the age of ten months old from something that’s easily remedied today.  Klapper’s mom urged Robert to be a doctor, but he wanted to be a carpenter like his dad, who was honest, hard working and always told him to: “Measure twice and cut once.”

Klapper caught on that rowing was a sport while watching the Summer Olympics on television.  Rowing was the only recreation he had being a poor kid from Rockaway.  He would take out a boat and row around Jamaica Bay.  His dad told him the sport was only for those rich kids who went to ivy league schools. Klapper wanted to learn everything about the sport. He wrote to every rowing coach at every ivy league school, asking how they trained.  Those coaches wrote back on stationary from those ivy league schools.  Klapper kept the letters and after he graduated Rockaway High 19th in his class of 1200 from a school not known for geniuses, he sent a “coach” letter with every application.  What gave his application an edge was the addition of that letter.  He not only got accepted to Columbia, Klapper won the Syc Scholarship setup by a rich benefactor specifically for someone on the rowing team and studying medicine.

Forced to take an art history class in his freshman year, Klapper tried to bail when the professor warned the pre-med students they shouldn’t take his class because he didn’t give A’s.  Every pre-med student needed to maintain an A average.  What stopped Klapper from leaving was the professor, the way he conveyed the texture, breath and beauty of art.  Klapper not only got an A (a first) he changed his major to Art History, something his pre-med counselor warned him not to do.  That change got the doctor (who did take all the science courses required) into Columbia Medical School, because they never had an Art History major apply before.   

Klapper wanted to work with his hands, just like his father did.  Orthopedic surgery gave him that opportunity. 



He’s always thought and did things outside the box.  Being a doctor, he admits, he hates going to doctors, and to dentists.  His wife forced him to go for a dental checkup when he was in training to become a surgeon.  He was fascinated by the instrument the dentist, his wife’s uncle, used–a Cavitron. That led to the first of Klapper’s six patents.  The Cavitron uses ultrasound to clean teeth, and is set only to the frequency that removes plague, not enamel.  Klapper invented an instrument that uses ultrasound to turn surgical cement to a chewing gum consistency, thus minimizing damage to bone during repairs to orthopedic implants. 

With the proceeds of the sale of that invention to a large pharmaceutical company, Klapper took his first trip to Italy. 

With all the things the doctor does, he sees himself foremost as an artist. He admires Michelangelo more than any other Renaissance master, “A man who tried to understand the meaning of life.” Like his hero, the doctor says, “I can see through skin.”   Michelangelo was said to see past the stone to the object trapped inside.  Klapper asked us to goggle Michelangelo’s David and study the left hand, how the veins under the skin are collapsed because the hand was raised above the heart.  No other artist of his era captured this quirk of the circulatory system, something that wasn’t documented by science for another 150 years after Michelangelo’s David was created.


Dr. Klapper has a show Saturday mornings on ESPN LA 710am,  The Weekend Warrior.  It’s well worth listening to this man who’s been successful thinking outside of the box his whole career.

Dr. Klapper's sculpture, inspired by Michelangelo's Pieta

Dr. Klapper’s sculpture, inspired by Michelangelo’s Pieta













Debra Tash is Editor-in-Chief of, past president for Citizens Alliance for Property Rights, business executive and award-winning author, residing in Somis.

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