The argument was clear Thursday evening—UT Southwestern Medical Center is unlike other American academic healthcare institutions because its success and its relevance are enabled by the support of the community in which it exists. And nearly 200 of Dallas’ business and civic leaders gathered about two stories underground in the rotunda-shaped debate chamber at the tony Old Parkland campus, sharing in a night led by legendary journalists Jim Lehrer and Lee Cullum that highlighted the history of Dallas’ now world-renowned institution.
“UT is building new a medical school in Austin and it’s being built by appropriations from the state of Texas. This medical school was built by the community, the philanthropists, the businesses that pitched in early on,” said Robert Rowling, the chairman of the Southwestern Medical Foundation. “The source of this school came from the citizenry of Dallas, not by the state of Texas.”
The invite-only event was held on the heels of the Southwest Medical Foundation’s 77th anniversary. In the audience were guests like Dr. Kern Wildenthal, the university’s controversial yet widely respected former president, as well as Dallas Regional Chamber President Dale Petroskey and Dallas Citizens Council President Alice Murray. They snacked on hors d’oeuvres of lobster BLTs and Texas goat cheese and drank long-stemmed glasses of red wine and Chardonnay. After a long walk down a marble spiraled staircase soundtracked by a string quartet posted at its base, the guests watched a video in the dark that highlighted the early years the Southwestern Medical Foundation, UT Southwestern’s philanthropic arm.
It showed Dr. Edward Cary, the visionary who made Dallas his permanent home in 1939 after his mother became ill and died. He formed Southwestern Medical Foundation that year, knowing that the city would need a major healthcare institution to thrive. Dallas at that time, Cary declared, was a “medical wilderness,” one that could not compete with the states on the northeast. And in 1943, after the Baylor School of Medicine traded Dallas for Houston, he convinced the business community to pledge $1 million over the next decade for operational costs associated with a new medical facility. This was a particularly remarkable feat, they argued, as World War II was raging.
But then, the video, playing on screens mounted along the curved walls, suddenly stopped. A beam of light shined down on the longtime PBS newsman Jim Lehrer, who welcomed the crowd with a quote from Cary: “Speaking at the Dallas Chamber of Commerce in 1943, Dr. Cary said “the medical progress in any community is largely associated with the development of medical education within the community.”
The lights then flooded the room, giving the crowd a chance to hear the words “Good evening, I’m Jim Lehrer” live. The crowd laughed as they applauded. The evening then became a back and forth between Lehrer and Cullum, the two reminiscing about their time covering Dallas in the sixties and seventies.
“We have not contributed to the building of a great city,” Lehrer said. Cullum quickly answered: “But we reported about it!”
UT Southwestern President Dr. Daniel Podolsky took to the stage to discuss the university’s Nobel winners—Drs. Michael Brown and Joseph Goldstein, who won in 1985 for the development of statin drugs. In 1988, Dr. Johann Deisenhofer developed a three-dimensional structure of a membrane bound protein molecule, which led to the explanation of photosynthesis. The late Dr. Alfred Gilman won in 1994 after discovering how cells receive and respond to external stimuli. Dr. Bruce Beutler won in 2011 for research leading to understanding of the body’s first rounds of disease response. And Dr. Thomas Sudhof won in 2013 for his research into cellular transport systems.
“There is no doubt in anybody’s assessment that we stand among the tier of the most effective academic medical centers not just in this country, but in the world,” Podolsky said.
Former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison appeared in a video and discussed the university’s stubborn dedication to researching what became known as the Gulf War Illness. Initially funded with a donation from Ross Perot, the university dug into claims by veterans returning from the Gulf War suffering from significant neurological symptoms. Hutchison later secured further funding via earmarks that kept the research going in the light of much criticism from the press and other members of Congress. The research helped validate the illness and spurred researchers to pursue treatment for it, which was likely caused the exposure to chemicals and smoke while deployed.
Mayor Mike Rawlings took to the stage and offered a civic history of Southwestern’s time in the city, including the story of former Mayor J. Erik Jonsson gifting future Nobel winners Goldstein and Brown his home phone number in case they ever needed money to continue their research. (They never called). Harlan Crow, the real estate developer and history buff who bought and redeveloped Old Parkland, explained why it was important to house the Southwestern Medical Foundation on its campus. Its headquarters are near the former location of the wooden buildings meant to house the county’s first public hospital. Having it there is symbolic, Crow said, a reminder of how healthcare developed in Dallas. He echoed how significant those early donations were, considering the country’s wartime economy.
The gifts have only grown, most notably by that of former Gov. William P. Clements Jr., who, before his death, donated $100 million to be used how the university saw fit. The foundation raised another $100 million from the community, and Clements now has a hospital with his name on it. Lehrer began the night with the principles set forth by Cary upon starting the medical school, and they hung over the rest of the proceedings.
“The teaching of medicine is a sacred trust. Southwestern Medical College must serve the community and the nation. The fundamental concepts on which the college is based are medical wisdom and human understanding,” Lehrer said, quoting Cary. “Service to the sick, research, teaching and the care of the patient shall take precedence over all other considerations.’”