James T. Willerson, MD

James T. Willerson, MD, FACC, is the President Emeritus at the Texas Heart® Institute (THI). Dr. Willerson's research concentrates on the detection and treatment of unstable atherosclerotic plaques, and the discovery of the genes and abnormal proteins responsible for cardiovascular disease. He has been 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. Show full bio

Dr. Willerson was born in Lampasas, Texas, and grew up in San Antonio.  His parents were both physicians.  He attended military schools in San Antonio:  the San Antonio Academy and the Texas Military Institute.  As a senior student at the Texas Military Institute, he was President of his class, the Battalion Commander, the editor of the high school newspaper, and he led the Texas Military Institute’s Swimming Team to a State Championship winning (5) five First place awards himself.  Subsequently, he petitioned the state public school system to allow him to swim in the public school State Championships in Austin where he placed second in the 200 Yard Freestyle.

Dr. Willerson attended the University of Texas at Austin as a pre-med student and on a swimming scholarship.  While at UT Austin, he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, he was a three-year letterman on the UT swimming team, was a member of the Phi Gamma Delta social fraternity and he was elected to join the Texas Cowboys.  After graduation, he attended Baylor College of Medicine in Houston where he graduated as a member of Alpha Omega Alpha and as President of his medical school fraternity.  He completed his training in Internal Medicine and Cardiology at Massachusetts General Hospital where he remained on their faculty for almost a year after his training ended.  In 1972, he was invited to join the UT Southwestern Medical School Faculty to help build their cardiology programs.  He spent 22 years at Southwestern Medical School and Parkland Hospital helping create a respected cardiology program and becoming the Chairman of the Cardiology Department, Professor of Medicine, where that same position bears his name today.  He has served as the Chairman of the National American Heart Association Research Committee, Chairman of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Research Study Section, as a member of the National American Heart Association Board of Directors and of the AHA National Steering Committee, and as the President of the American Heart Association, Houston Chapter.  He is also a member of the University of Texas System Chancellor Executive Council.

In 1989, then Chancellor Hans Mark and the UT Medical School in Houston offered him the position of being Chairman of Internal Medicine at the new UT Houston Medical School, and Dr. Denton Cooley offered him the position of leading the research programs at the Texas Heart Institute.  While at the UT Houston Medical School, he founded the Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Disease (IMM), and he helped to develop the medical school programs.  In 2001, he was named the President of the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston which includes Schools of Medicine, Nursing, Dentistry, Public Health and one of Graduate Medical Education.  Honorary chairs in Dr. Willerson’s name have been established at the UT Medical School in Houston and the IMM.  In 2004, Dr. Cooley asked Dr. Willerson to succeed him as President of the Texas Heart Institute, which Dr. Willerson accepted in 2008.  Today, Dr. Willerson is the President Emeritus of the Texas Heart Institute where he sees and cares for several thousand patients annually, leads a regenerative medicine research team along with Dr. Emerson Perin, and where he serves as the editor of the Texas Heart Institute Journal.

In his career as described above, Dr. Willerson has authored more than 1000 scientific articles in respected medical journals, 28 textbooks of cardiovascular medicine, holds 15 patents and served for 11 years as the editor of Circulation, an American Heart Association premier journal of cardiovascular medicine.  He is a member of the National Academy of Medicine and is a member of 10 foreign country honorary cardiovascular societies.  At UT Austin, Dr. Willerson has been named a Distinguish Alumnus and is a member of the UT Austin Hall of Honor for Athletic and Personal Achievements during his career.  Dr. Willerson has also been selected as a recipient of the “Pro Bene Meritus” Award at UT Austin, and there is a student scholarship given in Dr. Willerson’s name annually for the recruitment and retention of outstanding scholar-athletes to UT Austin, especially for the UT Swimming Team.  Most recently, he helped establish a collaborative research relationship between the University of Texas Austin Center for Vascular Imaging and Computational Engineering with the Texas Heart Institute in Houston that has recently been named in his honor.  He has also been named a Distinguished Alumnus of the Baylor College of Medicine.  He is a Professor of Medicine at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and Adjunct Professors of Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine and University of Texas Medical Schools.


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  • Undergraduate:

    University of Texas

  • Medical School:

    Baylor College of Medicine

  • Internship:

    Massachusetts General Hospital

  • Residency:

    Massachusetts General Hospital

Academic & Clinical Affiliations

  • Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center
  • University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
  • Baylor College of Medicine
  • University of Texas Medical Schools

Honors, Awards and Memberships


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