In Memoriam James T. Willerson, MD
It is with great sadness that we inform you of the passing of THI’s President Emeritus, Dr. James T. Willerson.
“While his passing is a tremendous loss, Dr. Willerson’s indelible legacy will live on in perpetuity through his countless achievements in cardiovascular research and philanthropy, the passion that he poured into everything he accomplished throughout his life, and the immeasurable impact he made on the evolution of a world-renowned organization recognized in all corners of the globe. Dr. Willerson lived a tremendous life defined by curiosity and an eternally burning flame for the study of the human heart and its myriad complexities, and on behalf of the Texas Heart Institute Board of Trustees, it is with a heavy heart that I share the news of his passing.”
James T. Willerson, MD, FACC, served as the President Emeritus at the Texas Heart® Institute (THI). Dr. Willerson’s research concentrated on the detection and treatment of unstable atherosclerotic plaques, and the discovery of the genes and abnormal proteins responsible for cardiovascular disease.
He was directly involved in seminal research in the use of stem cells for the repair of hearts and cardiovascular vessels injured by heart attacks. These landmark discoveries led THI to being awarded the first FDA-approved human clinical trial using adult, human stem cells to treat ischemic cardiomyopathies and congestive heart failure.
James T. Willerson, M.D., was born in Lampasas, Texas. He grew up in San Antonio, Texas, and attended the San Antonio Academy in grade school and The Texas Military Academy (TMI) for high school. During his senior year at TMI, he was Battalion Commander, President of his class, editor of the school newspaper. He was a state swimming champion winning five first places in the state private school swim meet.
In most recent years, Dr. Willerson, served as the President Emeritus, Director of Cardiology Research, and Co-Director of the Cullen Cardiovascular Research Laboratories at the Texas Heart® Institute (THI) at CHI St. Luke’s Health-Baylor St. Luke’s. He served as President of The University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston from 2001-2008, and he recently retired as the Edward Randall III Professor of Internal Medicine at The UT Medical School at Houston. He held the Dunn Chair in Cardiology Research at THI, the Willerson/O’Quinn Chair at THI, the James T. Willerson, MD Distinguished Chair in Cardiovascular Diseases at UT Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, and The Institute of Molecular Medicine “IMM” at the University of U.T. Health Houston. He was named a Distinguished Alumnus at the University of Texas, Austin, and at the Baylor College of Medicine. A swimming scholarship is named in his honor at The University of Texas at Austin.
Dr. Willerson is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of UT Austin, where he was a three-year swimming letterman and a member of the Texas Cowboys. He is an AOA graduate of Baylor College of Medicine and received his postgraduate training at Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Dr. Willerson was a member of the National Academy of Medicine.
As the second longest-serving Editor-in-Chief of Circulation, a journal of the American Heart Association, his tenure lasted 11 years. In addition to having served on numerous editorial boards for professional publications, he has edited or co-edited 27 textbooks, including his signature textbook, the Third Edition of Cardiovascular Medicine, released in February 2007. He has published more than 1000 scientific articles in major journals.
Dr. Willerson has served as a visiting professor and invited lecturer at more than 260 institutions worldwide. Included in his awards are the “James B. Herrick Award” from the American Heart Association in 1993; the American College of Cardiology’s Distinguished Scientist Award in 2000; the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Scientific Councils of the AHA in 2002; and the AHA’s Distinguished Scientist Award in 2003, and he was one of the initial five physician-scientists to receive this recognition from the AHA. He was the recipient of the Gold Heart Award, the AHA’s highest award, in April 2005, He has been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine of the United Kingdom and made an Honorary Member of 10 foreign Societies of Cardiology.
He was a member and past President of the Paul Dudley White Cardiology Society at Massachusetts General Hospital. In June 2004, Dr. Willerson received the Medal of Merit for Distinguished Achievements in Cardiovascular Sciences by the International Academy of Cardiovascular Sciences. In 2005, he received the “Lifetime Achievement Award” presented at the 17th Annual Transcatheter Cardiovascular Therapeutics Scientific Symposium (TCT) on behalf of the Cardiovascular Research Foundation in Washington, DC. In 2006, Dr. Willerson received the Libin Award in Cardiovascular research in Alberta, Canada; the “Living Legend Award” for achievement in cardiovascular research from the 16th World Congress of the World Society of Cardiothoracic Surgeons in Ottawa, Canada; and the “Most Outstanding Cardiologist, 2006” award from the Cardiovascular Society and Medical School of Shanghai, China. He also received the Katz Research Prize from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York City, New York, 2007. Dr. Willerson was elected President of the International Society for Cardiovascular Sciences based in Winnipeg, Canada, and served from 2011-2014. From 2009-2010, he served as President of the Board of the American Heart Association, Houston Chapter.
The James T. Willerson Distinguished Chair in Cardiology was named in his honor at the Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Diseases at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston in 2009. In June 2009, he was elected to The University of Texas Hall of Honor for accomplishments in varsity swimming from 1957-1961 and for ongoing professional contributions in the field of medicine. In September of 2009, he received the Ray C. Fish Award from Texas Heart Institute for “An individual whose endeavors have made significant contributions to cardiovascular medicine or surgery.” In 2010, Dr. Willerson was the recipient of the Special Achievement Award in Life Sciences from Houston Technology Center. In 2012, he received both the Lifetime Achievement Award from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi, India, and the Distinguished Services Award from Amity University, Uttar Pradesh, India. The University of Cadiz in Cadiz, Spain presented Dr. Willerson with an Honorary Doctoral Degree in 2012. In 2013, he was honored by the Texas Heart Institute and the Texas Medical Center by having the weekly cardiovascular seminar series named “The James T. Willerson, MD Cardiovascular Research Lecture Series.” He was named Chair of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Trans-Atlantic Network of Excellence of the Leducq Foundation in 2014. A Research Center in Molecular Imaging and Computational Engineering has been named in his honor at the University of Texas, Austin.
Dr. Willerson took care of patients daily from a patient population of more than 2,000.
Dr. Willerson’s research concentrated on the detection and treatment of unstable atherosclerotic plaques, and the discovery of the genes and abnormal proteins responsible for cardiovascular disease. Also, Dr. Willerson and colleagues Drs. Emerson Perin and Ed T.H. Yeh have been directly involved in seminal research in the use of stem cells for the repair of hearts and cardiovascular vessels injured by heart attacks, and they are responsible for major discoveries, landmark publications, and for Texas Heart Institute’s being awarded the first FDA-approved clinical trial in the use of adult, human stem cells to treat ischemic cardiomyopathies and congestive heart failure in humans. As a result of discoveries in his research, Dr. Willerson has been awarded 15 patents.