Home National Weather Retired dean receives American Heart Association award for his influential work at University of Maryland School of Medicine – Baltimore Sun

Retired dean receives American Heart Association award for his influential work at University of Maryland School of Medicine – Baltimore Sun

by DrewLUD

Donald E. Wilson, dean emeritus of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, was presented with the 2022 Watkins-Saunders Award by the American Heart Association this spring.

The award, given annually since 2012, recognizes individuals or organizations in Maryland who have been champions in the fight against health disparities and inequities. The award is named in memory of two doctors who were American Heart Association volunteers, the late Drs. Levi Watkins and Elijah Saunders, pioneers in the field of cardiology who were committed to equality in health care, according to the association.

Saunders was a mentor and friend of Wilson. He encouraged Wilson to apply for the position at the University of Maryland and went to the school’s president demanding Wilson be interviewed for the post, according to a spokesperson for the American Heart Association.

A retired gastroenterologist, Wilson said being named this year’s Watkins-Saunders honoree was surprising, but a great honor.

The award “goes beyond the discipline of heart disease and stroke, and it talks about an issue that is universal in health care in our country right now,” Wilson said. “And that’s the issue of health disparities, which in part is due to the lack of diversity of health care providers and the decision makers in our country today.”

Wilson has had great success in American medicine. “I experienced a lot of firsts in my career,” he said.

Wilson became the first Black dean of a nonminority focused medical school in the United States in 1991, when he was named dean of the University of Maryland School of Medicine. During his 15-year tenure, he not only improved diversity at the school, but he also transformed it into one of the top research medical schools in the country.

“My first meeting with my chairs and program directors, I was in a room with 25 people, 20 of whom thought they should be the dean … who thought they could do the job better than I could. So that was an interesting start,” Wilson said. “To say there was racial bias would be an understatement.”

He knew he was going to be a doctor from the time he was about 9 years old. Growing up in Worcester, Massachusetts, he had gotten ill and his family called a doctor to the house who helped cure him.

“I was impressed,” Wilson, 86, recalled. “I said, ‘I’m going to be a doctor when I grow up,’ especially after noticing the lack of people of color in medicine.”

“I realized, in my young days, we had a deficiency of representation in terms of who you could go see — not that white doctors wouldn’t see you — but if you were more comfortable going to a person of color, you only had one choice in all of Worcester, Massachusetts,” said Wilson.

This has a large impact on research and patients of color’s medical knowledge of themselves. He experienced the same in medical school, with seven out of 1,172 class members being Black. He graduated from Tufts University School of Medicine in 1962.

“I never saw a black professor,” said Wilson.

He has spent much of his career trying to change that and addressing other health disparities and inequities. Under his leadership at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, the number of female faculty members increased by 75% and the number of minority faculty members tripled.

“I felt I had to do something about what I saw because I can’t just walk by knowing there’s something wrong in this world. I see a problem and I address it.” said Wilson.

His presence encouraged more students of color to come to the University of Maryland, and he became a role model for people of color who wanted to practice medicine or enter medical academia such as Dr. William Ashley. Ashley, a neurosurgeon at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, is president of the board of directors of the American Heart Association of Greater Maryland and chairs the Watkins-Saunders Award selection committee.

He was a teen when he met Wilson, who was a colleague and friend of Ashley’s father. Wilson was the youngest person to achieve full professor status at the University of Illinois Medical School. As Ashley was graduating high school, Wilson offered him advice about his future. Their paths crossed again some 20 years later when Ashley came to Maryland.

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Ashley, 49, said Wilson left an indelible mark on his career and has been a role model for other people of color like himself who wanted to pursue a career in medicine.

“When I got to Baltimore, he was very pleased to see me and recalled our conversation,” Ashley said. “I really feel very proud to have known him all these years and have him be part of building me to where I am today.”

Wilson also implemented curriculum changes at UM that included more practical, hands-on instruction, and he grew research funding from $77 million to $341 million, among the highest of American medical institutions at the time. Wilson said the medical school went from the fourth quintile in external research funding to the top quintile when he retired in 2006.

“I didn’t come to Maryland to increase diversity; I came to Maryland to improve the medical school,” Wilson said. “I believe you can’t reach the best possibilities unless you have a diverse group of people working with you and advising you. So, increasing diversity was going to help the medical school no matter what happened.”

Wilson, who lives in Baltimore County, is still actively involved in several organizations that promote the advancement of people of color in health care and academic medicine, including serving as chair of the Association for Academic Minority Physicians, which he founded.

He believes a greater impact can be made by ensuring diversity in research and in leadership roles.

“We’ve made a lot of progress in medicine, but the world is going backward,” said Wilson. “I hoped that I would live to see the world end racial disparities but sadly, it won’t happen in my lifetime. Structural racism is a large part of our downfall. There’s lots of work for us to do.”

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