2008 Distinguished Service - Thomas J. Russell, MD ’62
Russell answers call again and again
Classes represented in this story: ’29, ’62, ’96, 01
Not once. Not Twice. Three times, Thomas J. Russell, MD ’62, has been asked to provide interim leadership to the Medical College Dermatology faculty, and he has shouldered the responsibility each time. For this characteristic dedication to the College and his commitment to alumni, Dr. Russell received the 2008 alumni Distinguished Service Award.
“I was surprised, and it was really a terrific honor to join the previous awardees who have been such a credit to the Medical College of Wisconsin, in view of community service, patient care and medical education,” he said.
Since the November 2006 departure of Dr. Kim Yancey, Dr. Russell has been Interim Chairman of Dermatology while the College actively searches for a full-time successor. Although this is his third time in the role (the first being a two-year period in the early 1970s), he said the wonderful colleagues in the department make the work worthwhile. His job, as he describes it, is to be at the rudder of a speed boat, participating in a collegial application of everyone’s talents in a team effort.
The second time Dr. Russell steered this ship, a five-year span,Dermatology was not yet a department at the Medical College. His efforts were considered instrumental in creating a Department of Dermatology independent of the Department of Medicine in 1988. He understood that to become recognized nationally or internationally, Dermatology needed the flexibility and sense of self responsibility that came with being a department to attract world class scholarly leadership.
“To achieve success in recruitment, department status was an option that had to be offered – anything less than that would not have been satisfactory,” he said. “It was obvious at that time, programs that were most successful were independent departments.”
The Division of Dermatology had built a solid reputation within the school due to the success of its training program and institutional service. With the support of many of the school’s leaders, Dr. Russell was able to present the value and necessity of an independent department. The achievement allowed the new department to recruit Luis Diaz, MD, from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. An international authority in immunobullous disease, Dr. Diaz served as Chairman for 11 years.
Dr. Russell’s commitment to service to the College coincides with the earliest years of his career. While a private practitioner who maintains a growing practice today, he volunteered as a clinical instructor in 1968.
“I participated on the volunteer faculty out of a sense of loyalty, even obligation, to contribute in any way I could to our current students and residents and maintain the tradition of previous faculty and residents who put so much effort into this first-rate department,” said Dr. Russell, who finds great enjoyment in his mentorship of students and trainees.
He believes leading by example in patient care, style and professional ethics provides the greatest value to students and residents. The experience is mutually constructive, as Dr. Russell emphasizes that he has received an invaluable education from his residents and students over four decades as a teacher. They remind him of the pleasure of learning.
Dr. Russell has been a solid alumni citizen as well, having recently completed his second three-year term on the Alumni Association Board. He has also been very active in reunions. It’s all part of instilling pride in the College family.
“My view is a good institution becomes great with an institutional memory,” said Dr. Russell, whose own family includes three generations of graduates from the Medical College. His father, Joseph Russell, MD ’29, was an alum, as are two of his four children, Mary C. Russell, MD ’96, a neuroradiologist; and James P. Russell, MD ’01, a dermatologist and part-time Medical College faculty member.
With more than 40 years experience in dermatology, Dr. Russell takes satisfaction in seeing the field advance. He finds fresh enthusiasm in new developments that stand to improve patient care.
“What’s most exciting now, not only in dermatology but in medicine in general, is the application of the exploding area of genetics in diagnosis, prognosis and therapy,” he said. “My only regret is not being able to participate in these exciting times for the next 50 years. It will be a great time for medical science.”