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May 25, 2000

Amidst some laughter, Detre Hall is dedicated

Amidst some laughter, Detre Hall is dedicated

Under Thomas Detre's leadership, Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic abandoned its traditional, psychoanalytic approach to treating mentally ill patients in favor of new drug-based and neurological therapies.

One of Detre's early proteges, current UPMC Health System President Jeffrey Romoff, remembers a street corner confrontation with a disgruntled Freudian shortly after Detre's arrival here in 1973.

Gesturing toward Western Psych, the psychoanalyst told Romoff: "I think Dr. Detre is crazy. And it would serve him right if one day they named that insane asylum after him!"

That's exactly what Pitt did on Monday, with the dedication of Thomas Detre Hall of the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic.

The ceremony came two weeks after Pitt dedicated Wesley W. Posvar Hall (formerly Forbes Quadrangle) in honor of the former chancellor, who also attended the Detre Hall dedication.

Detre retired as Pitt's senior vice chancellor for the Health Sciences in 1998 but remains active as UPMC Health System's executive vice president of international and academic programs and director of international medical affairs.

He noted that it is rare to name a campus building after a living person. "It is indeed a great tribute and a magnificant gesture, for which I am deeply grateful," Detre told the Pitt and UPMC representatives, Detre family members and others crowded under a tent across O'Hara Street from the newly renamed building. (Chancellor Mark Nordenberg said the University considered asking the city to shut off a block of O'Hara for the ceremony, but decided against trying to close what is a main artery to UPMC hospitals. "Also," Nordenberg quipped, "there's a bit of a history between Pitt and the city when it comes to closing streets" — a reference to Pitt's controversial, losing battle during the 1990s to close Bigelow Boulevard between the Cathedral of Learning and the William Pitt Union.) The chancellor called Detre "a born risk-taker" who survived as a young Jew in Nazi-occupied Hungary, fled the country after the postwar Communist takeover in order to study psychiatry and medicine in Rome, and later resigned his prestigious job as psychiatrist-in-chief at the Yale-New Haven Hospital to join Pitt in the joint position of director of Western Psych and chairperson of the medical school's psychiatry department.

Detre showed "an uncanny ability to spot the next big trend" in research and clinical care, Nordenberg said. During his quarter-century as a Pitt Health Sciences administrator, Detre helped to position the University in the forefront of such promising — but, at the time, not yet commonly accepted — specialties as organ transplantation and gene therapy, the chancellor pointed out.

By the mid-1980s, Pitt's psychiatry department had become a world leader in research on schizophrenia, mood and sleep disorders, depression and child psychiatry. Since 1989, the department has been awarded more National Institutes of Health funding than any other academic department in the United States.

Units launched under Detre's leadership included the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, the Thomas Starzl Transplantation Institute, the Pittsburgh Genetics Institute and the Positron Emission Tomography Center.

In 1987, Detre was named president of the newly created medical and health care division, which evolved into the UPMC Health System.

Despite those and other milestones, "Tom Detre has been, first and foremost, a compassionate physician," according to Lawrence D. Ellis, a Pitt medical professor and UPMC Downtown medical director. Other speakers described how Detre intervened to ensure that they and their family members received the best care available.

His voice breaking with emotion at times, Pitt trustees chairperson J. W. Connolly recalled suffering a stroke two years ago and later meeting with UPMC doctors to discuss followup surgery to remove scar tissue from around his carotid artery. Detre participated in the meeting via speakerphone from Cairo.

The mood of this meeting grew grave as Connolly, a man noted for his outspokenness, was warned that the operation might leave him permanently unable to speak.

"There are probably a lot of people in Pittsburgh who wouldn't mind that a bit," Detre's voice intoned over the speakerphone. The remark cracked up everyone in the meeting room and relieved the tension.

"Tom is my friend," Connolly said at Monday's ceremony, "and my Jewish guardian angel."

Other speakers alluded, jokingly, to a less heavenly character in connection with Detre, whose accent, Old World charm and, according to non-admirers, sinister reputation bring to mind a certain Transylvanian nobleman.

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 (who was recovering from open heart surgery himself) 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 later told the crowd 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 said: "My talent-scouting is without question my greatest asset," beginning with his first Pitt "recruit": wife and epidemiology professor Katherine Detre. In March, the National Institutes of Health announced a $52.2 million grant to fund her study of coronary heart disease treatment for patients with Type 2 diabetes. It's the largest NIH grant ever awarded to a Pitt researcher.

In closing, Detre 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, he will never get lost in Pittsburgh.

— Bruce Steele

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