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October 14, 2010

Obituary: Thomas P. Detre

detre,tThomas P. Detre, whose efforts helped the University’s health sciences programs reach international acclaim and who is credited with transforming the University’s teaching hospitals into UPMC, died Oct. 9, 2010, at home after a long illness. He was 86.

Since 2004, he had held the titles of Emeritus Distinguished Senior Vice Chancellor for Health Sciences and Emeritus Distinguished Service Professor of Psychiatry.

As Pitt’s senior vice chancellor for Health Sciences, Detre established an innovative funding process that directed dollars from clinical practice into interdisciplinary research and then applied the results of those endeavors to clinical advances.

This approach is said to have attracted more patients and led to the growth of the University’s medical programs and the development of what is now UPMC.

Detre is credited with positioning the University to become one of the nation’s top 10 recipients of research support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a status it has maintained since 1997.

In a prepared statement, Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg said, “Dr. Detre’s leadership in bringing world-class medicine and pioneering research to western Pennsylvania transformed the character and culture of this region. His impact — in advancing the cause of human health and in enhancing the reputation, quality of life and economic strength of Pittsburgh, a city that he loved — was enormous. In addition to his legendary record of professional achievement and impact, Tom was beloved for his kindness, compassion, wit and Old-World charm. He will be sorely missed, here in Pittsburgh and around the world, by a multitude of admiring colleagues and devoted friends.”

Detre began his career at Pitt in 1973 when he left a tenured faculty position at Yale University and his post as psychiatrist-in-chief at Yale-New Haven Hospital to become director of Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic (WPIC) and chair of the Department of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine.

According to Robert C. Alberts’s institutional history, “Pitt — The Story of the University of Pittsburgh 1787-1987,” one of Detre’s early priorities as director of WPIC was recruiting top-notch faculty.

WPIC, prior to Detre’s arrival, had built a faculty heavily influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud with a strong emphasis on psychoanalysis, Alberts wrote in the chapter titled “The Future of Academic Medicine.”

“The psychoanalytical approach, so popular in the 1950s and 1960s, was now giving way to new pharmacological and neurological methods, and this approach was favored by Detre,” Alberts wrote. “He sought distinguished academicians with multiple expertise ranging from the social and behavioral sciences to the neurobiological aspects of psychiatry.”

In Detre’s own writings on academic medicine in the 1980s, he drew a distinction between a teaching hospital and a university hospital, Alberts noted. “In the teaching hospital, Detre said, the mission of the hospital predominates, with academic programs vying for scarce funds, staff and space,” Alberts wrote. “In a university hospital, by contrast, the primary mission is academic.”

As Detre himself wrote, “The mandate of the university hospital is to be in the forefront of health training, research and service delivery. Looking beyond the borders of the local area, it strives to be a standard-setter nationwide.”

“Detre and his team turned WPIC into a center for creative research and new treatment modalities,” Alberts wrote. “The institute became known for its work on sleep disorders and affective disorders, particularly depression, biologic drug therapies and innovative treatment programs for such specialized groups as children and geriatric patients.”

Under Detre’s direction, WPIC’s budget increased nearly tenfold. While director of the institute, Detre negotiated with the University to take control of hospital clinical revenues, with the aim of reinvesting profits into faculty recruitment, patient care and research.

As a result of those strategies, the psychiatry department became one of the top three in NIH funding within a decade, and the number of its full-time faculty grew from 36 in 1974 to almost 150 by 1982.

Detre was named associate senior vice chancellor for the six health sciences schools in 1982 and, two years later, was appointed senior vice chancellor, a position he held until 1998 — a longer tenure than Detre had wished, having announced plans to retire in 1992.

It took three searches to find Detre’s successor. The first search ended in 1993 when Pitt could not reach agreement with any of four finalists. Nordenberg, then interim provost, chaired the second search, which Pitt’s Board of Trustees called off in May 1995. Trustees decided that hiring Detre’s successor should wait until the board named a new, permanent chancellor — who in 1996 turned out to be Nordenberg.

“During the first two searches,” Nordenberg told Senate Council in 1998 on the occasion of Detre’s retirement, “there was speculation that maybe he didn’t really want to go. All it took was a few years of working regularly with me,” Nordenberg quipped, “and he decided that retirement was, in fact, an attractive alternative.”

Nordenberg then thanked Detre, and added, “the University as a whole is a far, far better place for [having had] your leadership.”

Detre deadpanned his response, “Who am I to contradict my chancellor?” to laughter and applause.

Turning serious, Detre added, “Because as you probably know, even though I’m known to be a very direct person who says exactly what he thinks, I never was interested in ad hominem argument. I was only interested in issues. So, those of you who remember my direct comments will soon forget them, and I hope that we will remain friends.”

Long-time friend and colleague David J. Kupfer, Thomas P. Detre Professor of Psychiatry at the School of Medicine, told the University Times that Detre’s strengths included recruiting the highest-quality researchers.

“But not only that, he had this wonderful ability to say what was needed to be done and then he gave people a very clear sense of freedom and independence to do it, to get things done on their own. He was not a micromanager,” said Kupfer, who was one of Detre’s students at Yale and among his first recruits to Pitt. “That’s a testament to his leadership.”

Kupfer said Detre’s role as a successful recruiting “talent scout” in the 1970s coincided with the rise to greatness of the city’s professional football team.

“When the football team was doing so well, as we were doing so well on the academic side and especially in psychiatry, we were called the Pittsburgh Stealers” for snapping up talent from top schools, including nearly 30 colleagues from Yale, Kupfer said. “He was the coach of the Pittsburgh Stealers.”

Detre also was a terrific organizer, pulling together researchers from different disciplines and programs, he said.

“What Tom provided for me and hundreds of other people was a wonderful role model of what a physician could do in the interface between psychiatry and medicine,” said Kupfer, who served more than 20 years as chair of the Department of Psychiatry.

“In that sense he was my role model. Whatever skill set I have in dealing with researchers derived from watching him and experiencing him, going back to when he was my mentor as a young student in New Haven,” he said.

“Tom really created a culture of collaboration, a pervasive attitude that welcomed men and women and junior faculty, as well as established MDs and PhDs,” he added.

Detre also promoted career development programs in the psychiatry department. “Our department is not unique in this regard, but now we have the largest number of career development awards of any department in the country. That all came from Tom,” Kupfer said.

In a prepared statement, Arthur S. Levine, who succeeded Detre as senior vice chancellor for Health Sciences and as dean of the School of Medicine, said, “His philosophy of integrating research with the practice of medicine brought brilliant clinician-researchers to the University and altered its scientific landscape. He brought WPIC into the modern era of biological psychiatry and went on to foster science-based approaches throughout the health sciences schools, encouraging interdisciplinary efforts and high standards of scholarship that became and continue to be the foundation of our exceptional growth and achievement.”

Jeffrey A. Romoff, UPMC president and chief executive officer, praised Detre as an extraordinary visionary.

“Tom Detre laid the groundwork to build a nationally ranked and internationally respected School of Medicine, as well as a global health enterprise that is second to none,” Romoff stated in a release. “He was an extraordinary clinician and researcher whose keen eye for talent and readiness to foster innovation led to the University and medical center recruitment of many gifted individuals who have redefined medical practice and helped innumerable people around the world.”

During the evolution of UPMC, Detre served from 1986 to 1990 as president of what then was called the Medical and Health Care Division of the University of Pittsburgh and president of UPMC from 1990 to 1992.

Following his retirement from the University in 1998, until 2004 he served as executive vice president of international and academic programs and later as medical director of international programs for UPMC Health System.

During his tenure, Detre spearheaded the Partnership for Medical Renaissance, a $300 million construction and renovation project supporting the growth of the University’s biomedical research and clinical programs.

He helped develop the Pittsburgh Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Center for Biomedical Research, the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, the Center for Sports Medicine and the Center for Biomedical Ethics (now the Center for Bioethics and Health Law).

Also under Detre’s leadership, the Thomas Starzl Transplantation Institute, the Pittsburgh Genetics Institute, the Positron Emission Tomography Center and dozens of multidisciplinary programs in the health sciences were founded.

In addition to his numerous administrative accomplishments, Detre was a member of more than 20 medical societies and authored or co-authored scientific papers, textbook chapters and a well-known book on psychiatric treatment.

He served on a variety of advisory boards for the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He also served as president of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, and was active on numerous committees and task forces for various agencies, organizations and philanthropies.

Detre also received many professional honors. He was board chair of the National Library of Medicine in 2005; received an honorary medical degree in 2003 from Semmelweis University, in his native city Budapest, Hungary, and was named a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences in 1998.

In 2005, he was honored as a History Maker in Medicine and Health by the Sen. John Heinz History Center, and in 2009 he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree by Carnegie Mellon University.

In 2000, Pitt named the WPIC building Thomas Detre Hall in his honor.

The Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic building was named Thomas Detre Hall in a ceremony on May 22, 2000, following the approval of Pitt’s Board of Trustees. At the dedication, Detre, pictured above, noted that it is rare to name a campus building after a living person. “It is indeed a great tribute and a magnificent gesture, for which I am deeply grateful,” Detre told the crowd in attendance.

The Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic building was named Thomas Detre Hall in a ceremony on May 22, 2000, following the approval of Pitt’s Board of Trustees. At the dedication, Detre, pictured above, noted that it is rare to name a campus building after a living person. “It is indeed a great tribute and a magnificent gesture, for which I am deeply grateful,” Detre told the crowd in attendance.

At the dedication of Detre Hall in May 2000, some speakers alluded, jokingly, to a well-known fictitious character in connection with Detre, whose heavy accent and European charm called to mind a certain Transylvanian count.

Nordenberg initiated the Dracula references while reminiscing about the first time that Detre phoned him at home. Although he barely knew Nordenberg at the time, Detre was calling to inquire about the recent illness of Nordenberg’s father.

Nordenberg said his son answered the phone, talked briefly with the Hungarian-accented caller, then asked: “Dad, do you know someone named ‘Toe-moss’ who sounds like Count Dracula?”

Romoff told the crowd at the dedication ceremony that, contrary to popular belief, Detre did not arrive in Pittsburgh in 1973 “in the dead of night in a horse-drawn carriage, carrying a box of soil from his native land. I thought it was unfair that people would think that,” Romoff added, struggling to sound indignant.

When Detre’s turn came to speak, he acknowledged Romoff’s tongue-in-cheek defense of his reputation. Looking at Romoff, he said in a mock-threatening voice: “As far as you are concerned, Jeff, I still fly at night.”

Seeking to spread credit for accomplishments during his administration, Detre added, “My talent-scouting is without question my greatest asset.”

Detre further noted the practical side of having a building named after him. Research shows that elderly people, as their memories fade, tend to forget where they live and work — but not their names, he said. As long as he remembers his own name, Detre said at the 2000 dedication, he would never get lost in Pittsburgh.

Detre was born Tamas Feldmeier on May 17, 1924, in Budapest. He was a 20-year-old student when he learned that his parents and 20 other relatives had been killed at Auschwitz. The following year, he renamed himself “Detre,” a play on the French verb that means “to be,” as a symbol of his will to continue living.

Detre received a bachelor’s degree in 1942 in classical languages from the Gymnasium of Piarist Fathers in Kecskemet, Hungary, and completed his medical degree at the University of Rome School of Medicine in 1952. He interned at Morrisania City Hospital in New York, and trained in psychiatry at Mt. Sinai Hospital and Yale’s School of Medicine.

Detre is survived by his second wife, Ellen Ormond; sons John A. Detre and Antony J. Detre, and four grandchildren.

Detre’s  first wife, Katherine M. Detre, Distinguished Professor of Epidemiology at the Graduate School of Public Health, died in January 2006, almost 50 years after they married.

Memorial gifts may be made to the Katherine Detre Scholarship Fund at GSPH, A661 Crabtree Hall, 130 DeSoto Street, Pittsburgh 15261.

—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 43 Issue 4

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