Youngner, Fisher, and Starzl Honored with Chancellor’s Medals

Issue Date: 
May 19, 2014

InFrom left, Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg; Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Patricia E. Beeson; Arthur S. Levine, Pitt’s senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and John and Gertrude Petersen Dean, School of Medicine; Bernard Fisher, emeritus professor and a pioneering breast cancer researcher; Julius Youngner, Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry, and a pioneer in polio prevention; Thomas E. Starzl, Distinguished Service Professor of Surgery who is known as  the “Father of Transplantation;” and Pitt Board of Trustees Chair Stephen Tritch. a ceremony recognizing decades of cutting-edge research at the University of Pittsburgh, Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg awarded Chancellor’s Medals to three internationally renowned Pitt faculty members, Julius Youngner, Thomas Starzl, and Bernard Fisher, for their ground-breaking discoveries in polio, organ transplantation, and breast cancer, respectively. 

The work of these three individuals is emblematic of the tradition of internationally significant research that has characterized the University of Pittsburgh over the years. Such research continues to be a hallmark of the quality of faculty expertise and commitment found throughout the University, making Pitt one of the premier public research universities in the world.

Recognizing the accomplishments of these three remarkable individuals pays tribute to both the University’s heritage as well as affording a context for the ongoing impactful research being conducted daily here at Pitt.

The Chancellor’s Medal is the most prestigious of all medals awarded by the University. University policy states that medals are reserved for those who have left “an indelible mark on the proud traditions, values, and character inherent in the University of Pittsburgh. …”

Chancellor Nordenberg presented the medals to the three healthcare pioneers during Pitt’s commencement, held in the Petersen Events Center on April 27.

The chancellor’s written remarks follow.

One of the most inspiring aspects of commencement is the opportunity it presents to recognize individuals whose work has brought honor to our University. Though I never have done it before on an occasion like this one, I am authorized to award Chancellor’s Medals, which are described by University policy as “the most prestigious of all medals and medallions awarded by the University.” Recipients are to be persons “who have left an indelible mark on the proud traditions, values, and character inherent in the University of Pittsburgh...”

When I reviewed the relevant history several months ago, I learned that only eight such medals had been awarded since Chancellor Edward Litchfield presented the first—50 years ago, in 1964. And none had been awarded since Chancellor Wesley Posvar presented his last—in 1982, more than 30 years ago. Having announced my intention to step down as Chancellor this summer, I also realized that I had little time to add to that list myself.

Today, then, it is my great privilege to present Chancellor’s Medals to three extraordinary members of the Pitt faculty. Their work, which I will briefly describe to you, has touched the lives of everyone who has gathered in this arena today, as well as most of the population of the world. These medal recipients are being recognized by their University today for the impact of their work, for the values that have characterized their careers, and for their deep and lasting commitment to Pitt.

To assist in the presentation of these medals, let me ask Patricia Beeson, the provost of the University, Stephen Tritch, the chair of our Board of Trustees, and Arthur Levine, senior vice chancellor for the health sciences, to join me as we welcome three true giants in the history of medicine:

• Dr. Julius Youngner—Pioneer in Polio Prevention;
• Dr. Bernard Fisher—Pioneer in Breast Cancer Treatment; and
• Dr. Thomas Starzl—Pioneer in Organ Transplantation.

Provost Beeson, Senior Vice Chancellor Levine, and Chairperson Tritch will present these three medals simultaneously, but let me first introduce each of our honorees to you in something of a chronological order, beginning with Dr. Julius Youngner.

Julius Youngner
The first major outbreak of polio in the United States occurred in 1916 when 6,000 people died and 27,000 were paralyzed. The disease reached its peak in 1952, as described by Jeffrey Kluger in his book, Splendid Solution.

“In the summer of 1952 alone, more than 55,000 children in the United States had gone to bed with what their mothers believed was a cold and had woken up feverish, chilled, and rubber-limbed the next day. When the worried-looking doctor was led into the children’s room, he’d ask them almost casually if they wouldn’t mind lifting their heads to look at their belly buttons. When they couldn’t, it was as sure a sign as any that the cold was actually poliomyelitis and that the . . . rubbery legs would soon grow much worse. [Affected children] were hurried off to hospitals, where they waited to learn if the virus would quit when it had claimed their legs, or if it would go after their arms and their torsos and their very breath as well.”

Parents across the country feared the arrival of the summer months, often called the “polio season,” for it was during those months that children were most likely to contract the dread disease. Around the country, swimming pools, movie theaters, and public parks would close in vain attempts to halt polio’s spread.

But on April 12, 1955, the entire country breathed a shared sigh of relief and then responded with a collective cheer when it was publicly announced that the vaccine developed by a University of Pittsburgh research team, led by Dr. Jonas Salk, had produced a vaccine that was “safe, effective and potent.”

The development of the Pitt polio vaccine is considered to be one of the greatest scientific achievements of the 20th century, and Dr. Julius Youngner, who came to Pitt in 1949, was a key scientific leader of that team. Among his many contributions, he established the cell culture technique that made large-scale production of the polio virus possible, developed the process to destroy the ability of the virus to infect without impeding its effectiveness as a vaccine, devised the methodology for safety testing batches of the vaccine—including those used in the first field trial here in Pittsburgh—and formulated a simple test for anti-polio antibodies to determine the vaccine’s effectiveness in those who had been immunized.

Dr. Youngner’s “post-polio” work has included other significant contributions to the fields of virology and immunology. That work has targeted, among other diseases, human flu, equine influenza, and SARS. He also has made substantial contributions to the understanding of the antiviral effect of interferon.

Dr. Youngner is both a respected and beloved Pitt colleague, and it is a privilege to honor him today.

Bernard Fisher
Dr. Bernard Fisher not only is a high-achieving member of our faculty but is a distinguished “double graduate” of our University. He earned both his Bachelor of Science degree and his Doctor of Medicine degree from Pitt in 1940 and 1943, respectively. And it is here that he did the work that earned him international recognition and brought hope to women around the world. In fact, there are those who believe that Dr. Fisher has done more to advance the cause of women’s health than any single person in the history of medicine.

Dr. Fisher revolutionized the way in which breast cancer is treated. He was the first to show that breast cancer is a systemic, and not a localized, disease, a principle that we now know is applicable to many other cancers. He led the studies demonstrating that disfiguring surgeries such as radical mastectomies could be replaced with lumpectomies and that chemotherapy and hormonal therapy could be as effective in treating breast cancer as surgery.

Dr. Fisher initiated the world’s first study to determine whether Tamoxifen could prevent breast cancer in women at high risk of developing the disease, finding that the drug did significantly reduce the risk of breast cancer in women who fell into that category, making it the first successful chemoprevention therapy for breast cancer.

Dr. Fisher established the Laboratory of Surgical Research and was a founding member and past Chairman and Scientific Director of the National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project, a research consortium headquartered in Pittsburgh, which has an extensive history of designing and conducting clinical trials that have changed approaches to the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of breast cancer.

Dr. Fisher, like today’s other medal recipients, has received many honors and awards over the course of his long and distinguished career. One noteworthy example is his receipt of the Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award—which has come to be known as “America’s Nobel Prize in Medicine.” It is a privilege to add to Dr. Fisher’s impressive list of past awards by presenting him with his Chancellor’s Medal.

Thomas Starzl
Our next honoree, Dr. Thomas Starzl, is also a recipient of what now is known as the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, one of the more than 200 awards he has received over his long and distinguished career. In 2006, it was my privilege to travel to the White House with Dr. Starzl, when President George W. Bush presented him with the National Medal of Science, this country’s highest scientific honor.

When Dr. Starzl was nominated for a prestigious Markle Scholarship as a young man in 1958, he was told to come up with a “big idea” to present to the selection committee. He narrowed his choice down to two ideas: discover a cure for cancer or transplant a human liver. Because the cure for cancer seemed to be right around the corner, he chose liver transplantation as his big idea. And in 1963, he performed the first human liver transplant, and in 1967, he performed the first successful human liver transplant. Both of these firsts occurred at the University of Colorado.

In 1981, he joined the faculty of our University, and he built the biggest and busiest transplant program in the world here in Pittsburgh. More broadly, he developed most of the surgical techniques and drug therapies that made human organ transplantation possible. At one time, he also had trained most of the surgeons performing liver transplants around the world. It is not surprising, then, that he is considered by many to be “the Father of Organ Transplantation.”

A special edition of Time magazine, published in 1996, said this:

“Of all the wonders of modern medicine, none has captured the public imagination as fully as organ transplantation . . . These spectacular [surgical] feats have won headline coverage and created instant heroes of patients and doctors alike. One of those heroes is Dr. Thomas Starzl . . . who performed the world’s first successful liver transplant in Denver. It was Starzl’s team at the University of Pittsburgh Transplantation Institute that made liver transplants routine and fine-tuned the intricate balance of immunosuppression drugs to fight the rejection of transplanted organs by the body’s immune system.”

When he still was performing surgery, Dr. Starzl was considered by many to be the world’s most skilled surgeon. And according to the Institute for Scientific Information, even while he was functioning as the lead surgeon in the world’s busiest transplant program, Dr. Starzl produced a scientific paper every 7.3 days, making him one of the most prolific scientists in the world. During that same period, he also was identified as the most cited scientist in all of clinical medicine.

Dr. Starzl’s work not only dramatically advanced the cause of human health, but played a major role in the transformation of Pittsburgh—from a smoky industrial city to one that has become known around the globe as a center for pioneering research and world-class health care.  It is a privilege to add to Dr. Starzl’s long list of honors by presenting him with a Chancellor’s Medal.

Let me ask Provost Beeson, Senior Vice Chancellor Levine, and Chairperson Tritch to present our honorees with their medals and let me ask you to please join in a robust round of applause for these three health care heroes: Drs. Julius Youngner, Bernard Fisher, and Thomas Starzl.