Lives of the fellows

Robert George Petersdorf

b.1 February 1926 d.29 September 2006
AB Brown(1948) MD Yale(1952) FRCP(1976) FACP

Robert G Petersdorf, one of the great modern leaders of internal medicine in the United States, leaves a long and prominent legacy of contributions to the art and science of medicine. He excelled in research, teaching, patient care and medical administration, but will be best remembered for the positive influence he made by mentoring countless medical students, house staff officers, chief residents, research fellows and faculty.

He was born in Berlin, Germany, the first of two sons. The family emigrated to the United States when Petersdorf was an infant. Although the war with Germany and Japan was raging at the time of his graduation from high school in Los Angeles, he was able to attend the University of Wisconsin for one year before being called into the US Air force. An Air Force colleague told him about Brown University and, once out of the military service, he applied there and was accepted. By the sophomore year he was firmly committed to pursuing a career in medicine and at the age of 22 entered Yale Medical School. At Yale he experienced the two most important encounters of his life. The first was meeting Patricia Horton Qua, a nursing student, whom he married in 1951 and was his lifelong partner. The second was Paul Beeson [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web], who played a major role in Petersdorf’s career, both as a friend and colleague.

Following graduation, Petersdorf completed his internship and residency at Yale and Harvard University, and trained in infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins, before returning to Yale to serve as chief resident under Paul Beeson. It was during this time that the two wrote a paper on fever of unknown origin that became a classic. Subsequently, he published more than 400 additional papers that contributed to clinical investigations in internal medicine and infectious diseases, as well as numerous provocative and often controversial editorials commenting on medical education and health care. In addition to original articles, he was the infectious diseases section editor for many editions of Harrison’s principles of internal medicine (New York, McGraw-Hill).

Over the years Petersdorf moved back and forth between the east and west coasts of the USA and, following two years as a faculty member at Hopkins, went to the University of Washington in 1960 as the first chief of medicine at King County Hospital (Harborview Medical Center). In a short period of four years he began to build what was to become an excellent department of medicine with a dozen faculty members within the larger university department. In 1962, he was promoted to professor after only two years on the faculty and in 1964 he was selected to succeed Robert Williams as chair of medicine at the University of Washington, and remained in that position for 15 years. During that period of time, he also managed to become president of nearly every significant academic organisation, including the American College of Physicians, the American Board of Internal Medicine, the Association of American Physicians and others. There seems to be a uniform agreement that Bob Petersdorf, after assuming the chair of a strong department in a great academic centre, made that department and institution even better than it was before, despite his many other national responsibilities.

Despite his great love for the University of Washington and the Pacific Northwest, he moved to Boston in 1979 as professor of medicine at Harvard and president of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. His role was to bring together three hospitals, the Peter Bent Brigham, the Robert Brock Brigham and the Boston Lying-In - by no means an easy task. However, the merger was completed and in 1981, mission accomplished, Bob was recruited back to the west coast as vice-chancellor for health sciences and dean of the University of California San Diego School of Medicine (UCSD). After almost five years in that position, where he was credited with enhancing the clinical image of the UCSD and in catalysing an effective consortium between the UCSD and the Salk Institute that was funded in part by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, he was recruited to succeed John Cooper as president of the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington, DC.

In 1995, after eight years in Washington, DC, where Bob had a very successful tenure during a tumultuous time in changes in health care delivery and graduate medical education, he moved back to Seattle as distinguished physician at the Puget Sound Veteran’s Health Care System and distinguished professor at the University of Washington. Here again he served in a position that he loved the best - meeting daily with students and house officers and serving as an adviser to the dean.

He is survived by his wife of over 50 years, Patricia, two sons (John and Stephen) and seven grandchildren.

Marvin Turck

[;The New York Times 6 October 2006;The Lancet 2006,368,1764]

(Volume XII, page web)

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