Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Dean Emeritus Dr. Michael J. Dunn

Michael J. Dunn, MD '62, Guided MCW's Emergence as a National Leader

The life, legacy and leadership of Michael J. Dunn, MD honored in virtual celebration

Dr. Dunn, MCW’s executive vice president and dean of the school of medicine emeritus, died on November 29, 2021, at the age of 85. Dr. Dunn led MCW’s medical education, research, patient care and community engagement programs from 1995 to 2008 and is credited with guiding MCW’s emergence as one of the nation’s premier medical schools and prestigious academic medical centers.

Destined to be Entwined with MCW

“It seems it was destined that Dr. Dunn’s life would be entwined with MCW,” says Joseph E. Kerschner, MD ’90, FEL ’98, MCW provost, executive vice president and The Julia A. Uihlein, MA, Dean of the School of Medicine. “He followed in the footsteps of his father, Cornelius Dunn, who graduated from the Marquette University School of Medicine in 1931.” The Marquette University School of Medicine is MCW’s predecessor institution.

We are fortunate that Dr. Dunn shared his memories in a videotaped interview with MCW’s then-archivist and faculty member, Walter Gager, MD ’63, GME ’67, in 2012. Some of Dr. Dunn’s reminiscences and quotations noted below have been culled from that session and from several media interviews.

As a young boy, Dr. Dunn’s family’s home was located at 87th Street and Bluemound Road in Wauwatosa, mere blocks from today’s Milwaukee Regional Medical Center campus. Dr. Dunn recalled, “As a rambunctious youth, I roamed the vegetable fields of the county farms, which provided food for the patients at the Milwaukee County Hospital. My recollection is that the Medical College of Wisconsin is presently situated in a former cabbage field.”

Dr. Dunn was a member of an informal group known as the “3-M Club” – those young men who graduated from Marquette University High School, Marquette University (where he received his undergraduate degree in philosophy) and the Marquette University School of Medicine.

Michael J. Dunn, MD '62, MCW Dean Emeritus“From my medical school days, I clearly remember the Cramer Building, which housed the medical school on 15th Street on the Marquette campus,” Dr. Dunn said. “That was the era of John Hirschboeck [MD ’37] as dean, and the powerful clinical and basic science leaders such as [Drs.] Engstrom in medicine, Ellison in surgery and Kerrigan in pediatrics. Basic science leaders included [Drs.] Quick in biochemistry, Beckman in pharmacology, Kappus in microbiology, Smith in physiology and Walter Zeit in anatomy.”

Thomas Russell, MD ’62, MCW emeritus professor of dermatology, reminisces, “I got to know Mike Dunn well when we entered the Marquette University School of Medicine as classmates in 1958 – when we paid total tuition and fees in archeologic and prehistoric terms of $1,075 for the year.”

As a medical student, Dr. Dunn was mentored in physiology by Alvin Rieck, PhD, who stirred his passion for academic medicine and kidney physiology.

Upon graduation from medical school in 1962, Dr. Dunn was the recipient of the Millmann Award, MCW’s highest honor for a graduating medical student. His medical school classmates honored him by creating the Michael J. Dunn, MD, Class of 1962 Achievement Award, which recognizes the senior medical student graduating with the most distinguished academic record. The Class of 1962 currently is raising funds to establish an endowed chair in Dr. Dunn’s name.

Establishing a Career in Academic Medicine

Dr. Dunn served an internship and residency in internal medicine at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. He then took a nephrology fellowship at the University of North Carolina and spent three years of military duty as a malaria researcher at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Bethesda, Maryland.

Dr. Dunn began his career in academic medicine at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, where he rose to the position of professor and associate chair of medicine.

Before returning to his medical school alma mater in 1995 as MCW’s eighth dean and executive vice president, Dr. Dunn was the Hanna Payne Professor of Medicine and director of the nephrology division at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio. He also served as associate director of the department of medicine and acting chair of medicine at both Case Western Reserve and the University Hospitals of Cleveland.

Creating a Foundation for the Next Generation of Physicians and Scientists

Dr. Dunn’s 13-year tenure as MCW’s dean (1995-2008) was one of the longest among US medical schools. Allen Cowley, Jr., PhD, the James J. Smith and Catherine Welsch Smith Professor Emeritus, the Harry and Gertrude Hack Term Professor Emeritus of Physiology, and former chair of the department of physiology, led the MCW dean’s search committee and recalls, “It was apparent that Dr. Dunn had high aspirations for MCW and intended to move us forward from the middle of the national pack into the top tier of US medical schools. By every measure, he achieved that goal.”

At his installation ceremony as dean in 1995, Dr. Dunn said, “Medical schools are the engine in our society that provide the human and intellectual resources for our healthcare system. Thus, we have a major role to play in the future. I think the school has a bright future for a number of reasons. We have the advantage of being the only [academic medical center] in a large metropolitan area. We have the advantage of being in an ideal location; we’re not locked in downtown. We’re in an area where we can build. We have relatively young and dynamic faculty and good community relations. And we have three terrific hospitals.”

He continued, “We are at a critical juncture in academic medicine, in a time of transition. I want to use my experience, knowledge and judgment to help create a new foundation for the next generation of physicians and scientists.”

Dr. Dunn immediately forged a strong partnership with T. Michael Bolger, JD, then MCW’s president and CEO, as they led Wisconsin’s only private academic health sciences center into a new millennium. Milwaukee Magazine observed in 2008, “[Michael] Dunn and [Mike] Bolger have perfected the inside/outside partnership, which is often difficult to achieve. Bolger oversees fundraising, government affairs, alumni affairs and community relations. This leaves the dean free to run the medical side: academic programs, clinical programs, research, relationships with hospitals and recruiting of faculty. Indeed, the long tenure and happy partnership of Bolger and Dunn provided the perfect recipe to grow the institution.”

“What I enjoyed most was being a leader on behalf of the faculty and students,” Dr. Dunn shared in his interview with Dr. Gager. “I liked the idea of being able to work with them to formulate new ideas about clinical care, education or research, and then helping them to get the assets needed – whether it be space or money or new faculty to implement it.

“I always felt that my job was to work for the faculty,” Dr. Dunn continued. “When I met with faculty members, it was never with idea that I had the right ideas and they should follow. It was with the idea that we should jointly articulate our programs and then I’ll help you get the resources.”

Dr. Dunn, Steven J. Smith, and T. Michael Bolger, JD
(l-r) Dr. Dunn, Steven J. Smith, former chair of the MCW board of trustees, and T. Michael Bolger, JD, former president and CEO of MCW, shared a light moment in 2006.

Energizing the Academic Enterprise Through Research

Often referred to at that time as MCW’s “research dean,” Dr. Dunn fostered a climate of collaboration and commitment to the advancement of medical knowledge. Under his leadership, MCW was identified as one of the nation’s fastest-growing biomedical research institutions – as MCW expanded its cancer, cardiovascular and digestive disease research centers while creating new multidisciplinary centers of research in genetics, biotechnology and imaging.

“Research is absolutely vital to our academic mission,” Dr. Dunn said. “Our research programs invigorate our teaching, introduce potential cures for clinical research testing and energize the entire academic enterprise of the Medical College.”

Dr. Dunn led the design and development of MCW’s more than $200 million investment in new research and medical education facilities on the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center campus, including MCW’s Health Research Center and the Translational and Biomedical Research Center.

National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding to MCW increased more than 200 percent during Dr. Dunn’s tenure as dean; MCW rose to top third of all US medical schools for NIH funding. “The NIH, in the aggregate, spends $30 billion on research [grants],” Dr. Dunn noted. “They’re the hardest to win, have the most prestige, create national leverage and visibility.” While he was dean, MCW’s total research revenue grew from $49 million to more than $125 million.

“The trajectory and success that MCW has had in our research mission could not have been possible without Dr. Dunn’s leadership, his vision and his strategic planning,” Dr. Kerschner remarks.

In recognition of Dr. Dunn’s passion for scientific discovery, MCW’s department of medicine created the Michael J. Dunn Award for Research Excellence and Contribution. The award is presented annually to an established investigator in the department who exhibits all aspects of research contribution: scholarly excellence, mentorship, collaboration, education and institutional enthusiasm.

Through national searches, Dr. Dunn appointed all of MCW’s senior associate deans and most center directors, as well as 22 academic department chairs. Five new departments were established during his tenure (biophysics, otolaryngology and communication sciences, plastic surgery, population health and urology). Dr. Dunn told the Milwaukee BizTimes in 2007, “The biggest impact I’ve had at the Medical College has been to recruit chairmen and center directors – the leaders of the school who share my vision that this can be a great school and we can be competitive on the national scene.”

Doing What’s Right for Medical Education

Michael J. Dunn, MD '62, MCW Dean Emeritus, standing in HRCUnder Dr. Dunn’s leadership, MCW’s academic programs were awarded the maximum accreditation in the 1990s and again in the early years of the 21st century from both the Liaison Committee for Medical Education and the North Central Association of Colleges and Universities. MCW began updating its medical school curriculum with a focus on utilizing new technologies to enhance clinical skills. One major initiative was the development in 2002 of MCW’s Standardized Teaching and Assessment Resource Center, better known as the STAR Center.

Kenneth B. Simons, MD, senior associate dean for graduate medical education and accreditation, designated institutional official and director, Medical College of Wisconsin Affiliated Hospitals, Inc., and professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences, and pathology, and former senior associate dean for academic affairs, shares, “Mike was committed to doing what was right for our medical students’ education despite all of the competing pressures placed upon him. It was obvious that Mike Dunn was much more than just MCW’s ‘research dean.’ He was truly a dean for all of MCW’s missions.”

Clinical Care Based on Education and Research

In the clinical arena, Dr. Dunn worked with leaders from Milwaukee County and Froedtert Hospital to close the county’s John Doyne Hospital in 1995 and seamlessly transfer the county hospital’s patient care programs to Froedtert Hospital. MCW launched a primary care initiative to help support MCW’s faculty specialists.

As dean, Dr. Dunn worked closely with MCW’s three major teaching hospitals – Froedtert Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin (now Children’s Wisconsin) and the Zablocki VA Medical Center – as the hospitals developed national reputations as leading academic tertiary care facilities. William Petasnick, former president of Froedtert Hospital, remembered Dr. Dunn by saying, “His strong and effective leadership at the Medical College championed the integration of discovery, clinical research, education and expert patient care – leading to hundreds of applications that saved or improved the quality of life for multitudes of people.”

Dr. Dunn also worked with faculty leaders to establish two physician group practices: Medical College Physicians and Children’s Specialty Group. With almost 1,000 physicians, MCW was home to one of the nation’s largest academic medical group practices. During Dr. Dunn’s tenure as dean, the number of patient visits to MCW physicians increased from 700,000 to more than one million patients annually.

He said, “I want to emphasize that we MUST preserve our academic orientation as we address healthcare reform and a unified practice. We are not simply a medical clinic. We are an educational and research institution with a large commitment to clinical care. I want education and research to permeate everything we do.”

Elevating the Stature of Community Service

In 1997, under Dr. Dunn, the stature of community service was elevated as one of MCW’s four core missions. Within a decade, the mission gained national recognition. In 2005, the Association of American Medical Colleges bestowed its Outstanding Community Service Award to MCW for implementing innovative public and community health programs to meet the needs of underserved inner-city and rural populations.

Dr. Kerschner notes, “Many medical schools are just catching up to the Medical College of Wisconsin in having community engagement as one of the pillars of their medical school.”

A Distinguished Career Recognized by His Peers

Over the course of his career, Dr. Dunn published 183 original papers and authored or co-authored 54 chapters or textbooks on nephrology and hypertension. He was a past president of the American Society of Nephrology, one of the nation’s few medical school deans to maintain an active research lab and received continuous NIH funding for more than 35 years.

Dr. Raymond shares, “Mike was a personal hero of mine and a mentor to me early in my scientific career, like he was to so many clinician-scientists who were studying the basic mechanisms of kidney cell function. Later, Mike became a mentor and a friend to me.”

Dr. Dunn’s honors include his selection as a Master of the American College of Physicians – American Society of Internal Medicine and as a Markle Scholar in Academic Medicine by the John and Mary R. Markle Foundation of New York. He was named a Fogarty Senior International Fellow and served as a visiting scientist at the Institut Pasteur in Paris and the Centre de Biochemie at the Universite de Nice in France.

Dr. Dunn was honored by every institution for which he was an alumnus. He was elected to the Johns Hopkins Society of Scholars, named Marquette University’s Distinguished Alumnus in the Arts and Sciences, was recipient of Marquette University High School’s Alumni Merit Award and the recipient of MCW’s Distinguished Service Award – the institution’s highest honor for a faculty or staff member. Dr. Dunn also was the recipient of the Medical College of Wisconsin/Marquette Medical Alumni Association’s Alumnus of the Year Award.

Upon his retirement in 2008, MCW named Dr. Dunn as dean emeritus and distinguished professor of medicine.

The Dunn family in 2008
Dr. Dunn (top left) and his wife, Patricia (top right), enjoyed the Fourth of July holiday with nine of their 10 grandchildren at their home on Nagawicka Lake, Wisconsin, in 2008.

Making a Broad and Deep Impact

As he prepared to retire as dean in 2008, Dr. Dunn said, “This has been the most rewarding part of my professional career. It’s the most senior position and the biggest leadership position, and it’s given me the opportunity to have the broadest and deepest impact.”

He also reflected on the importance of a career in medicine saying, “The human needs for cure and healing persist. The call to meet those needs has been answered by society’s best and brightest for thousands of years. Whatever its socioeconomic situation, each generation of physicians has been committed to instill a love for and dedication to medicine in its successors, and to transmit Hippocrates’ code of professional values. Ours can do no less.”

– Richard N. (Dick) Katschke

Celebrating Dr. Dunn’s Legacy

If you would like to contribute to the Class of 1962 Fund in honor of Michael J. Dunn, MD, please visit our Giving site.

You can also mail a gift to:
Office of Development
Class of 1962 Fund in honor of Michael J. Dunn, MD
Medical College of Wisconsin
8701 Watertown Plank Rd.
Milwaukee, WI 53226

Dr. Dunn Remembrances

Mike knew how critical it was to support and recruit creative-thinking men and women if we were to be considered among the top medical institutions. He was very approachable and an outgoing individual with a charming, charismatic personality, gracious, with quick wit and a wonderful sense of humor.
Allen W. Cowley, Jr., PhD, former chair of physiology

He was a mentor – not just in medicine, but also in life. Wendy and I cherished each and every minute we got to share with Mike, Pat and their family.
Kenneth B. Simons, MD, senior associate dean for graduate medical education and accreditation and professor of ophthalmology and pathology

Dr. Dunn had a wonderful twinkle in his eye and dry sense of humor which always kept things even-tempered yet focused!
Hershel Raff, PhD, professor of medicine

I joined MCW as chair because of Mike Dunn and Mike Bolger. Mike Dunn was an extraordinary leader, a warm and wonderful person, a mentor and an inspiration. His love of science, people, food and wine ensured many, many wonderful times! Mike had a great impact on my professional life. He brought out the best in people and created a superb culture at MCW.
Paula Traktman, PhD, dean of the College of Graduate Studies and Hirschmann Endowed Professor, Medical University of South Carolina, who served as chair of the MCW department of cell biology, neurobiology and anatomy from 1997-2015

Mike Dunn and Mike Bolger were a terrific team. We all benefited from their sustained and complementary leadership. So grateful that Mike Dunn decided to return home and serve his alma mater.
Edmund Duthie, MD, GME ’79, MCW professor of medicine

Michael J. Dunn, MD '62, through the years

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