Dean's dedication, vision transform medical school

Sun profile

September 02, 2006|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun reporter


An article in Saturday's editions about the retirement of Dr. Donald E. Wilson as dean of the University of Maryland School of Medicine quoted Dr. Morton I. Rapoport, who was chief executive officer of the University of Maryland Medical System in 1991 when Wilson was hired. Dr. Rapoport was succeeded in that post in 2003 by Edmond F. Notebaert. Eighty-hour workweeks, plus the wear and tear of academic politics, egos and turf battles are enough to push U.S. medical school deans from office after an average of just 4 1/2 years.

But after a decade and a half on the job, it was Dr. Donald E. Wilson's kidneys that persuaded him to retire as dean of the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. Kidney failure and a transplant in December 2004 left him short of energy.

"It became clear to me that I couldn't put in the kind of workday I'd been used to," Wilson said. "I didn't feel comfortable doing less than I thought I should be doing."

And so, the second-longest-serving medical school dean in the country officially relinquished his office yesterday at the age of 70, after a tenure that has transformed the institution.

Wilson is succeeded by Dr. E. Albert Reece, who was dean of the College of Medicine at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, at Little Rock.

"When he came, the University of Maryland [medical school] was not regarded generally as one of the real research powerhouses in the country," said Dr. Jordan J. Cohen, president emeritus of the Association of American Medical Colleges. But Wilson's stewardship "has increased the research prominence and success of the school dramatically."

As a research institution, Maryland's medical school has long existed in the shadow of crosstown colossus Johns Hopkins University. But Hopkins' President, Dr. William R. Brody, said that UM has become "a real power ... a dynamic and vital organization at a time when medical schools around the country are struggling."

Maryland is now "highly competitive for some of the very best students," as well as for top faculty members. And that's a good thing, Brody said. Competition "makes us more responsive to the marketplace."

Under Wilson's leadership, the medical school built two bio-medical research buildings and is angling for a third. He also established the Center for Health Disparities, a new National Institutes of Health organization to study ethnic, racial and geographic differences in the diagnosis and treatment of disease.

Full-time staffing, student enrollments, clinical revenues, private gifts, endowed chairs and professorships have all grown enormously. So have research grants to the school's faculty - from $77.5 million when he took over in 1991, to $349.5 million last year.

Wilson's journey to UM was an unusual one. He was born in Worcester, Mass., where his father, Rivers Wilson, settled after leaving the South. The elder Wilson bought a truck, launched a trash-collecting business and invested his profits in real estate.

At 5, Donald decided he wanted to be a doctor. His parents ultimately rejected a school principal's advice that they send him to trade school, and he went to a college prep school instead - one of just three black students in a class of 300.

Described by classmates as humble, jocular, outspoken and popular, he fit in easily and excelled. He told a Sun reporter in 2000 that race was never an issue in his high school.

"Although I was quite aware that I was different, I didn't grow up feeling that I was burdened," he said. "Given my education and my background, no matter what color I was, you would expect me to succeed."

His approach to the subtle but inevitable bias he's encountered since then has been to "prove everybody wrong and do well."

Wilson graduated from Harvard University and the Tufts University School of Medicine. He was the youngest full professor ever at the University of Illinois medical school, and when Maryland came calling in 1991, he was physician-in-chief at the University Hospital and Kings County Hospital Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

At Maryland he became the first African-American dean of a predominantly white U.S. medical school. When he arrived, the state-funded medical school was still adjusting to its partnership with its affiliated, but recently privatized hospital - the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Dr. Morton Rapoport, chief executive officer of the parent UM Medical System, was working to get the hospital's financial house in order. That created tensions and turf battles in many camps, including the medical school, where the priorities had always been research and education, not hospital management and budgets.

"What makes strong academic medical centers is aligning those priorities," Rapoport said. "He [Wilson] was a great partner ... We didn't always agree, but we found ways to compromise and found ways to achieve our common objectives."

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