Dr. Joanne C. Smith


Shirley Ryan AbilityLab Mourns the Passing of Joanne C. Smith, MD, President & CEO

Dr. Smith pioneered an entirely new paradigm in medicine


Sept. 7, 2021 — CHICAGO — Shirley Ryan AbilityLab (formerly Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago) today announced the untimely passing of Joanne C. Smith, MD, president and CEO. Dr. Smith died following treatment for cancer, which she battled privately while continuing to fully lead Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. She was 60 years old.

Dr. Smith was the driving force behind the transformation of care delivery in the field of physical medicine and rehabilitation. As the president and CEO of the No. 1-ranked Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, she envisioned the world’s first-ever “translational” research hospital in which physicians, scientists, innovators, technologists and clinicians work together in the same space, surrounding patients, discovering novel approaches and applying (or “translating”) research in real time.

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of our friend and leader, Dr. Joanne Smith,” said M. Jude Reyes, board chair. “Dr. Smith re-envisioned and reinvented the field of physical medicine. She shifted the paradigm and focus from the process of rehabilitation to the outcome of ability. For the first time, she integrated research and novel, outcomes-based metrics into patient care, resulting in better, faster recoveries.”

Dr. Smith came to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago for her residency in 1988 and never left. In 1992, she became an attending physician and was subsequently tapped to take on various leadership roles of increasing responsibility. In 2006, a few years after earning her MBA from the University of Chicago, she became president and CEO.

Shortly into her appointment as CEO, Dr. Smith had a self-described epiphany. Medicine, science and technology were at a boiling point with the convergence of disciplines and discoveries. She leveraged this moment, pursuing a strong calling by placing leading-edge science labs right into the clinical environment for the benefit of patients and research. In essence, she envisioned “the world’s leading ability research institute within a hospital.”

Shirley Ryan AbilityLab — the physical enabler and manifestation for the vision and a $550 million, 1.2 million square foot research hospital — opened on March 25, 2017, gaining national and international accolades. Just recently, the hospital once again was ranked No. 1 in rehabilitation by U.S. News & World Report for the thirty-first year in a row — a level of distinction, quality and outcomes unmatched by any other hospital.

“Dr. Smith was a transformational and visionary health care leader,” said Shirley Ryan, board member. “Her impact in the field of rehabilitation will be felt globally for many generations to come.  She blended a culture of hope and positivity, integrating scientific research, technology and superior clinical care. I was honored to be her colleague and friend.” 

Dr. Smith was widely recognized as a thought leader. In 2021 and 2019, she was named to Modern Healthcare’s exclusive “Top 25 Women Leaders” list. In 2019, she spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival, the nation’s premier public gathering of leaders from around the globe. In 2018, she presented at the first-ever Wall Street Journal Future of Everything Festival, an ideas exchange focused on innovations that are transforming the world.

In addition to her leadership at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, where she managed a team of more than 2,000 clinicians, scientists and staff, she was a faculty member at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine for 25 years. She also served for more than a decade on the Healthcare Advisory Roundtable for Madison Dearborn Partners and for more than two decades on the board of directors for AptarGroup, Inc.

Until Shirley Ryan AbilityLab’s board of directors identifies Dr. Smith’s replacement, the organization will be led by Peggy Kirk, chief operating officer, and Nancy Paridy, chief administrative officer.

With great love for serving as president and CEO, Dr. Smith most valued her roles of wife and mother. She is survived by her husband, Rory Repicky, their children, Claire and Michael Repicky, and a large extended family, in which she was one of nine children.

“It is impossible to overstate the importance of love to Joanne — how her reverence for it drove and shaped her life,” said Repicky. “To Joanne, her work was always more than a job; it was a calling. By extension, her team members were always more than colleagues; they were members of her beloved, extended family. I know that her legacy will live on in this institution and in each and every employee working to improve the lives of the patients they serve.”

About Shirley Ryan AbilityLab


Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, formerly the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC), is the global leader in physical medicine and rehabilitation for adults and children with the most severe, complex conditions — from traumatic brain and spinal cord injury to stroke, amputation and cancer-related impairment. The organization expands and accelerates leadership in the field that began at RIC in 1953. Shirley Ryan AbilityLab is a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization. For more information, go to www.sralab.org

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