Honoring a Beloved Mentor Committed to Clinical Excellence

James M. Cerletty, MD

During the nearly 40 years that the late James M. Cerletty, MD ’58, FEL ’64, served as residency program director and vice chair for education in MCW’s department of medicine, the meaningful sentiments expressed by him formed the core of his humanistic approach as a teacher and mentor.

Born and raised in Milwaukee, Dr. Cerletty received his Bachelor of Science at Marquette University and graduated from the Marquette University Medical School (MCW’s predecessor institution) in 1958. He completed his medical internship at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, DC, and served in the NATO Army Medical Corps in Poitiers, France. Dr. Cerletty returned to Wisconsin for his residency in internal medicine and his fellowship in endocrinology at the Milwaukee County General Hospital. He then joined the faculty of the medical school, from which he retired in 2003.

Dr. Cerletty shaped the medicine residency to reflect his commitment to excellence in diagnosis, treatment and patient communication. He took his role seriously, continually making time for clinical and personal issues while offering wisdom and peppering conversations with his humor and quick wit. He believed strongly in the importance of the integration of medical science with the art of medicine – and took seriously the responsibility to transform the “newly minted physician” into an emotionally capable, empathetic physician.

During his career, Dr. Cerletty wrote nearly 100 articles about his practice. According to his widow, Susan, “Through these writings he refined his own thinking about the importance of his humanism – the personal connection and importance of touch in a fully formed clinical practice. He would talk to his residents about getting to eye level, sitting down next to a patient, using touch. It was a way of letting Jim’s patients know that he was going to listen to them and take his time with them.”

Dr. Cerletty cared deeply about the residents and medical students – and it was this quality that made him an exceptional teacher and mentor. He firmly believed that good teaching requires skills that must be passed on and nurtured by creating a tradition of mentoring practices.

Susan Cerletty shares that during his practice, “Jim was totally committed to the responsibility to transition young medical scientists into capable, empathetic clinicians. It was a purposeful intention on his part. He felt that the medical school was doing an excellent job of preparing medical students in the area of medical science, but he wanted to bring attention to the physicians on the faculty, who day in and day out were fostering clinical excellence.”

She adds that Dr. Cerletty believed the ability to connect with patients – the ability to take a history that is meaningful and the ability to connect in a human way with patients – is what makes the difference between a medical school that prepares doctors with excellence in medical science and one that transforms well-prepared doctors into physicians.

His former students, residents and colleagues heartily concur.

“Jim Cerletty was born to be a mentor. He had a reputation for being tough, and it is true he had very high standards for effort and performance. But he also had a keen sense of when a person could ‘take it’ and when he or she needed comfort and support,” says Mary M. Horowitz, MD ’80, GME ’84, FEL ’89, MS ’91, chief scientific director for MCW’s Center for International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research and Robert A. Uihlein, Jr. Chair in Hematologic Research. “Even when he was letting you know that you were not living up to what you were capable of, Dr. Cerletty was never unkind – it was just that one never wanted to disappoint him. I was on the receiving end of both his exacting and comforting sides, and I am grateful for both,” she adds.

According to Ann Nattinger, MD, MPH, MCW senior associate dean for research, Lady Riders Professor of Breast Cancer Research and professor of medicine, “Jim Cerletty was one of the most astute diagnosticians I have ever encountered. His powers of observation were legendary – for example, diagnosing acromegaly in someone he met in a shopping mall. Although he was a trained endocrinologist, he had a broad knowledge of many areas of medicine. I remember informally asking his opinion about diagnostic dilemmas on many occasions early in my career. His responses were inevitably factually correct and delivered with a humorous style that made me feel that he enjoyed being asked.”

“Dr. Cerletty’s intellect is legend. But what truly distinguished him was his listening skill,” shares Glenn Ragalie, GME ’80, FEL ’83. “He impressed me with his ability to be present when I interviewed in 1976 for a residency position. That ability was manifest in his relationships with patients, families, colleagues, students and friends. You felt like you were the only one in the room when he was interacting with you.”

After Dr. Cerletty’s death in December 2016 at the age of 83, the Cerletty family created The James M. Cerletty, MD, Endowed Mentorship Fund to benefit residents, fellows and medical students while honoring his commitment to clinical excellence by fostering and strengthening the mentorship and leadership skills of both junior and senior faculty members within the department of medicine. Income from the endowment fund supports the development of junior faculty members – role models who often have the greatest impact on MCW’s learners and trainees.

The fund also established a Cerletty Award for Excellence to recognize senior department of medicine faculty who have consistently demonstrated excellence and exceptional creativity in their teaching and mentoring practices. The fund now totals close to $300,000, including a recent significant contribution from Susan Cerletty – who is committed to supporting the fund’s further development.

“More than 1,000 residents passed through the department of medicine’s residency in Jim’s almost 40 years as residency director, and his legacy runs deep,” she notes. “He was a quick laser-sharp diagnostician and demanded medical excellence. The intent of the endowment is to sustain the continued development of mentors for clinical practice. It is about recognizing residents who are in training as well as faculty who have developed those capabilities and can role-model them effectively for young physicians who are evolving. Jim would be glad to know that his legacy is helping to encourage the openness to, and expression of, human emotions and vulnerabilities – which are qualities essential to a fully realized clinical practice.”

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When I instruct residents, I tell them, ‘Some patients will become very special to you, and it’s important to nurture those relationships because they will teach you something. By opening yourself up to a patient, you’ll discover what it means to really take care of someone.’

Dr. James M. Cerletty