Dr. Donald Seldin, Who Put a Medical School on the Map, Dies at 97
Posted May 1, 2018 6:44 p.m. EDT
Dr. Donald W. Seldin, who transformed an abandoned Army barracks in Texas into one of the nation’s leading medical schools, endowed with a faculty that would include six Nobel laureates, died on April 25 in Dallas. He was 97.
The cause was lymphoma, his wife, Dr. Ellen Seldin, said.
That Seldin would wind up in Dallas, or even become a doctor, was hardly predictable.
A Brooklyn-born child of the Depression, he grudgingly switched his college major to medicine only after he conceded that he probably could not make a living as a poet.
And just six months after he arrived in Texas in 1951, he was named department chairman of what is now the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center — only because he was the last surviving full-time faculty member after the professor who recruited him had quit.
When Seldin retired in 1988, he had served 36 years as chairman of Southwestern’s department of internal medicine — setting a record for the longest tenure as a department chairman in American medicine.
His skill as a recruiter, mentor, physician and scientist elevated Southwestern “from its humble beginnings in the barracks behind Parkland Hospital into a national powerhouse in biomedicine,” Dr. Richard Lifton, president of Rockefeller University in New York, said in a statement.
Dr. Eugene Braunwald, a professor of medicine at Harvard, called Seldin, who also helped elevate kidney care into a separate discipline, “the most influential and respected academic physician of this era."
Among those Seldin inspired were the school’s first two recipients of the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, both in 1985: Dr. Michael Brown (who recalled “the breadth and depth” of Seldin’s knowledge and “his relentless pursuit of the truth”) and Dr. Joseph L. Goldstein.
“He was famous in medical circles,” Goldstein wrote in an email, “for his sharp intellect, his extensive knowledge of clinical medicine, his impressive diagnostic skills, his stimulating approach to teaching, and his unique ability to select and mentor young physician-scientists, many of whom became highly successful biomedical scientists.” When Seldin retired, he left an institution far more prestigious than the one he had gambled on 36 years earlier, when he was 30 years old and fresh from turning down a top post at Yale Medical School.
In 1985, when he received the Association of American Physicians’ highest award, the George M. Kober Medal, he was lauded as “one of the dominant intellectual forces in American medicine.”
Seldin insisted that research faculty be paid as much as those involved in patient care and, in collaboration with the medical school’s president, Dr. Charles C. Sprague, helped oversee an annual budget that grew to $200 million from $10 million in 1967, when Sprague arrived.
When Seldin retired, the school had 650 full-time professors and 800 medical students in addition to 300 graduate students and 270 postdoctoral fellows.
In the preceding decade, eight Southwestern faculty members had been accepted into the National Academy of Sciences, a number matched only by Harvard, Yale and the University of California, San Francisco, and exceeded only by Washington University in St. Louis.
“The paradigm of professions is surely the medical profession,” Seldin often told first-year students. “We, all of us, are inheritors of the activities of people who have preceded us and who have devoted themselves to the mitigation of suffering.”
Seldin held those inheritors to a high standard, sometimes leaving students trembling with his signature rebuke: “Here’s a dime. Go call your mother. She will know the answer to my question. Tell her that you are coming home.”
He also drew a sharp distinction between society’s larger objectives — of “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being” for humankind — and the role of doctors, which he defined more narrowly as “the relief of pain, the prevention of disability and the postponement of death.”
Donald Wayne Seldin was born in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn on Oct. 24, 1920. His father, Abraham, a dentist, was from Bessarabia, a region in Eastern Europe that was claimed by several countries during the 20th century. His mother, the former Laura Ueberal, was from Vienna.
Before graduating from James Madison High School at 16, Donald worked summers as a bellhop at Grossinger’s hotel in the Catskills and as an usher at the Paramount theater in Times Square to supplement the family’s income, which had plummeted during the Depression.
An avid reader at the New York Public Library, he won a scholarship to New York University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1940.
“I was majoring in literature and wanted to go into either poetry or philosophy,” he said in a 2003 interview with the Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings. “But the time was deep in the Depression, and it would have been impossible really to make a living from those disciplines.” His father warned that not even a professional shingle, like his own as a dentist, guaranteed financial success; only a business career could do that, he said. But his son by then had decided to become a doctor.
“I finally decided to apply to medical school, and he thought that was terrible,” Seldin said. “He thought I always was a flop, never amounted to anything.”
He also attended the Yale School of Medicine on a scholarship.
In 1943, the same year he graduated from Yale, he married Muriel Goldberg, whom he had met in college. She died in 1994. In 1998 he married Ellen Lee Taylor, a doctor who had been a student of his years earlier.
Besides his wife, he is survived by three children from his first marriage, Donald Craig Seldin, Leslie Lynn Seldin and Donna Seldin Janis; and two grandchildren. Seldin served in the Army after World War II as chief of the medical department at a military hospital in Munich, where he was called as an expert witness in the war-crimes trial of a Nazi doctor who had experimented on prison inmates.
“Forty patients dying following liver biopsy pointed to medical inhumanity, not medical therapy,” Seldin said in the Baylor interview. “He was convicted and appropriately sentenced.”
When he returned to the United States and decided on Southwestern, he, his wife and their firstborn daughter drove from New Haven, Connecticut, to Dallas.
“I asked the filling station attendant where the medical school was,” he recalled. “He gestured in the direction of the railroad tracks down the street. I drove the car there. I looked around and saw nothing. I came back and told the attendant that I had not seen a medical school, only shacks and garbage. ‘That’s it,’ he said.”
Seldin was at Southwestern and Parkland Memorial in Dallas, its affiliated hospital, when President John F. Kennedy was rushed there, mortally wounded, on the day of his assassination in 1963.
Seldin remained with the school after he retired. (It had changed its name in 1987 from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Dallas.)
In the course of his career he was president of seven major professional or academic societies. One of them, the Association of American Physicians, gave him high praise when it described Southwestern as “a small sphere of stability held together by the gravitational force of this one man at its center.”