“It’s important to do what you can for children”

Riley 100 |


Dr. Marilyn Bull

Women’s History Month: Trailblazer pediatrician has saved countless lives while caring for kids and advocating for safe transportation in car seats.

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior writer, mgilmer1@iuhealth.org

Dr. Marilyn Bull could easily be swallowed up by the mass of papers, books, awards and photographs that blanket the desk, walls and shelves in her small office.

“I know where everything is,” she says with a chuckle as she surveys her desk. “The highest-priority things tend to be on top, but I really do know what’s on the bottom of the pile. I do.”

A developmental pediatrician for Riley Children’s Health for nearly 50 years, Dr. Bull still sees patients in clinic, still mentors the next generation of physicians and still pours time and effort into her longstanding role as a world-renowned child safety advocate.

Dr. Marilyn Bull

Indeed, among the papers on the top of the pile today are notes for presentations she is scheduled to make at safety conferences around the country.

“I love what I do,” she said, when asked why she keeps up the pace she does when others around her have long since retired. “It’s extremely meaningful, and it’s important to do what you can for children.”

Dr. Bull, the Morris Green professor emeritus of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, has done more than her share for children, both as a pediatrician for special-needs kids and a proponent of car-seat safety.

She is board-certified in pediatrics, clinical genetics and neurodevelopmental disabilities, but the latter is closest to her heart.

On a recent Friday, she’s just come upstairs to her office from clinic, where she regularly sees patients from many different cultures and with a variety of developmental delays and genetic disorders, including Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy and poor growth. She’s also medical director of Riley’s feeding program for children over the age of 1.


Raised on a farm in western Michigan, she helped put herself through college and later medical school by baking cherry pies, which she sold at her family’s farm market.

That first summer, in 1961, she baked 13 pies a day and sold them for 90 cents apiece. As she got better and worked harder, she was up to 95 pies a day.

That work ethic carried over into her career.

Shortly after arriving in Indianapolis with her husband, now retired physician Dr. Scott Bruins, and their then 10-week-old daughter in 1976, she started a newborn follow-up clinic at Riley, designed to boost survival rates of preemies.

Dr. Marilyn Bull

“In the first three years I was here, we had one death and two permanently brain-damaged NICU graduates, not because of the wonderful care they got in the NICU or issues related to their prematurity, but because we hadn’t put them in what would have been a $25 car seat,” Dr. Bull said. “I just couldn't tolerate that.”

She took those losses to heart and was instrumental in the passage of the first child passenger restraint law in Indiana in 1984, the first seat belt law in 1987 and the booster seat law in 2004, along with colleague Dr. Joseph O’Neil.

She established Riley’s Automotive Safety Program and the National Center for Safe Transportation of Children with Special Needs at Riley, providing curricula and training for instructors around the country. She and Dr. O’Neil are co-medical directors for the Automotive Safety Program.


“Those who know Marilyn know she never stops,” said longtime colleague and former pediatrics division chairman/physician-in-chief Dr. Richard Schreiner. “She developed the new neurodevelopmental pediatrics section into the largest and best in the country.”

Dr. Marilyn Bull

She has lectured at national and international conferences on traffic safety for kids, published numerous articles and been honored countless times for her efforts to not only save lives but enhance the lives of children, particularly those with Down syndrome.

Dr. Bull, whose interest in that genetic condition began during her fellowship in Boston in the early 1970s, is headed to Phoenix in July for the National Down Syndrome Congress Conference.

Last summer, she received the William I. Cohen Distinguished Service Award for her leadership within the Down Syndrome Medical Interest Group to create evidenced-based guidelines for the health and wellness of children with Down syndrome.

It’s one of dozens of awards and gifts decorating her office, with even more at home, a tribute to her decades of advocacy work on behalf of kids.

Dr. Marilyn Bull

But it’s the photos of her kids and her husband that stand out amid the trappings of a half-century of work. The couple raised two daughters and a nephew and are headed to Denver this week for an Easter visit and birthday celebration (Dr. Bull turns 82), followed by another presentation at the Lifesavers Conference on Roadway Safety.


Behind the door is a framed copy of an old Clarian Health (IU Health’s predecessor) promotional piece with Dr. Bull front and center. In the corner of a credenza are authentic mukluks and a miniature dog sled given to her after presentations in Alaska. On a bookshelf are tiny replicas of school buses, Riley wagons, bulls and other mementoes that speak to her passions and her sense of humor.

There’s a story behind each one of these items, and she tells as many as she can in a little over an hour, but she could fill days and weeks with the tales of a lifetime of service. And she’s not finished. She is currently working to get better restraint systems installed in ambulances.

It’s never been easy, she says of her work, but it is rewarding, and that’s what keeps her going, even after knee replacement surgery in January.

She still bakes the occasional pie, sings in her church choir and spends the summers up in Michigan, the closest to retiring that she will accept. But during those summer respites, she helps out on the farm and continues to make twice-monthly trips to South Bend to see patients.

That dedication is just one reason colleagues hold her in such high regard.


Dr. Celanie Christensen, division chief of developmental medicine at Riley (formerly known as developmental pediatrics), assumed that role from Dr. Bull several years ago, but she has known the senior physician since 1999, when Dr. Christensen was a graduate student.

“She’s been a longtime mentor. When she started at Riley, I hadn’t been born yet, but her energy, her drive, her passion are unmatched.”

While she’s well-known for her advocacy in the child development and safety space, it’s the little things that stand out the most to Dr. Christensen.

“It’s about being tenacious for each patient. It’s individual patients that I think keep her going. I’ve learned from her how to work harder and work smarter but to never ever forget the person and the family sitting in front of you and what you can do for them right now,” Dr. Christensen said, adding that Dr. Bull rarely takes no for an answer.

Dr. Tanya Abraham started working with Dr. Bull in developmental medicine about two years ago, but she first met the veteran physician in the classroom when Dr. Bull was her professor during medical school.

“I remember her as an excellent teacher 20 years ago, and she still loves it and is very good at it,” Dr. Abraham said. “She’s brilliant, and I’m glad she is still here inspiring the next generation of physicians. It’s important for trainees to see figures like her.”


The field of neurodevelopmental medicine didn’t exist when Dr. Bull began practicing, so it was up to her to develop treatment plans and problem-solve with patients and families.

“She’s one in a million,” Dr. Abraham said. “What I’d like to take from her is that same dedication to the field of medicine. Even though it’s challenging, she comes in day in and day out and really is present for her patients and families.”

Retirement is not in the cards yet, but Dr. Bull acknowledges that keeping up with technology is a constant challenge.

Yes, she’s on Facebook, no, she doesn’t make TikTok videos, and yes, she used to be active on Twitter before it morphed into X.

Her younger colleagues in Indianapolis and around the world are going to live in the technology world, and that’s appropriate, she said.

“I need to be there if I’m going to be communicating with them.”

When she talks, though, people listen.

Her board memberships and awards are too numerous to mention, as are the stories that go with them, but she finds satisfaction in knowing she has made a difference.

“I hope I’ve helped people.”

Now it’s late on a Friday afternoon, and she has charting to do and presentations to prepare before calling it a day.

“She keeps going because she loves it, and honestly, that’s what I hope for my career too,” said Dr. Christensen, whose office is two doors down from Dr. Bull’s. “Most nights, we’re the last two here, and I check on her before I go.”

Photos by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, mdickbernd@iuhealth.org

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The Story Behind That Mysterious Quilt At Riley - More than 200 names of children are embroidered onto the 32-year-old quilt that hangs inside the hospital. But who were they?

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