Thomas P. Detre, Academic Leader at Pitt and Architect of UPMC, Dies at 86

Issue Date: 
October 18, 2010
Thomas P. DetreThomas P. Detre

Dr. Thomas P. Detre, 86, the academic leader whose ambition and determined efforts helped propel the University of Pittsburgh’s schools of the health sciences to international prominence and the architect behind the transformation of the University’s teaching hospitals into UPMC, an integrated global health enterprise, died at home Oct. 9 after a long illness. Since 2004, he had held the titles of Emeritus Distinguished Senior Vice Chancellor for the Health Sciences and Emeritus Distinguished Service Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh.

During Dr. Detre’s tenure as the University of Pittsburgh’s senior vice chancellor for the health sciences, he established an innovative funding cycle of driving dollars from clinical practice into interdisciplinary research and then applying the results of those endeavors to clinical advances. This approach attracted more patients and led to the growth of the University’s medical arm and the ultimate realization of what is now UPMC, and it positioned 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.

“He was a great friend and colleague, and an extraordinary visionary,” said Jeffrey A. Romoff, UPMC president and chief executive officer. “His legacy will live on in so many ways.

“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 added. “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.”

“Tom Detre was the most accomplished academic leader I have known, and it was a great privilege to work with and learn from him,” said Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg. “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.”

Dr. Detre began his illustrious career at the University of Pittsburgh in 1973, when he left a tenured position at Yale University to become director of Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic (WPIC) and chair of the Department of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine.

He often told the story of a Yale colleague who, when hearing of his departure, said, “Planes fly over Pittsburgh. They don’t land there.” Dr. Detre’s response was characteristically bold and droll: “They will land when we land,” he said.

Upon landing at WPIC, he immediately brought in several accomplished physician-scientists and other talented health professionals to start large-scale research programs, revamp psychiatric training, and reinvent community outreach.

While WPIC director, Dr. 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 to almost 150 between 1974 and 1982.

Dr. Detre’s accomplishments in the Department of Psychiatry were apparent to University administrators, who asked him in 1982 to serve first as associate senior vice chancellor for the six health sciences schools and, two years later, as senior vice chancellor, a position he held until 1998. In the latter role, he was responsible for the Schools of Medicine, Dental Medicine, Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, Nursing, Pharmacy, and Public Health.

“His philosophy of integrating research with the practice of medicine brought brilliant clinician-researchers to the University and altered its scientific landscape,” said Arthur S. Levine, who succeeded Dr. Detre as senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and as dean of the School of Medicine. “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.”

During the evolution of UPMC, Dr. Detre was at the helm from 1986 to 1990 as president of what was called the Medical and Health Care Division of the University of Pittsburgh and president of UPMC from 1990 to 1992. Between 1998 and 2004, he served as executive vice president of international and academic programs and later as medical director of international programs for UPMC Health System.

In addition to having had numerous administrative accomplishments to his credit, Dr. Detre was a member of more than 20 medical societies and authored or coauthored scientific papers, textbook chapters, and a well-recognized 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; served as president of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology; and was active on numerous committees and task forces for various agencies, organizations, and philanthropies.

Dr. Detre also was the recipient of many professional honors. He was board chair of the National Library of Medicine in 2005, received an honorary medical degree from Semmelweis University, Budapest, in 2003, 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 Senator John Heinz History Center, and in 2009, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree by Carnegie Mellon University. In 2000, the University of Pittsburgh named the WPIC building Thomas Detre Hall in his honor.

Dr. Detre was born Tamas Feldmeier on May 17, 1924, in Budapest, Hungary, and decided to become a psychiatrist when he was 14. He was a 20-year-old student when he found out 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.

He received a bachelor’s degree in classical languages from the Gymnasium of Piarist Fathers in Kecskemet, Hungary, in 1942, 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, New York, and Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn.

He held clinical and academic appointments at Yale-New Haven Hospital and had been psychiatrist-in-chief there from 1968 to 1973, when he moved to Pittsburgh with his wife, renowned epidemiologist Katherine M. Detre; she was Distinguished Professsor of Epidemiology in Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health at the time of her death in January 2006, almost 50 years after they married.

Dr. Detre is survived by his second wife, Ellen Ormond, of Point Breeze; sons John A. Detre, of Philadelphia, and Antony J. Detre, of New York City; and four grandchildren.

Memorial gifts may be made to the Katherine Detre Scholarship Fund at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.