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Alumnus Robert Petersdorf, former AAMC president, dies in Seattle at 80

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2007 - Winter


While this issue of Yale Medicine was in production, we learned of the passing of Robert G. Petersdorf, M.D. ’52, HS ’58, former president of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), as well as chair of the University of Washington Department of Medicine, dean of the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Diego, and president of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. It seemed fitting to remember him on the same pages as Paul B. Beeson, M.D., former chair of internal medicine, who mentored Petersdorf early in his career.

The two met in 1952, when Beeson had just begun his tenure as chair and Petersdorf was in his last year of medical school. In 1996, when Petersdorf accepted the Kober Medal from the Association of American Physicians, he remembered what Beeson had told him that day: “The secret to success in [academic medicine is] to get one’s hands dirty in the laboratory.”

Five years after they met, when Petersdorf was chief resident, Beeson asked him to begin working on a paper describing 100 patients who had been ill for more than three weeks, had episodic fever of more than 101 degrees and had remained undiagnosed after one week in the hospital. This work was published under both their names in the journal Medicine in 1961 as “Fever of Unexplained Origin,” an article that remains one of the most frequently cited papers in medical literature.

Petersdorf went on to lead premier medical centers and departments around the country, as well as several medical organizations. He died on September 29 in Seattle of complications of strokes at the age of 80. Colleagues remembered him as a mentor to young physicians and as one of the foremost infectious disease experts in the United States.

As AAMC president from 1986 to 1994, Petersdorf sought to improve the nation’s system of medical education through efforts to increase the number of primary-care physicians, strengthen efforts to enroll underrepresented minorities, support the role of teaching hospitals, encourage academic physicians to devote more time to teaching and advocate for limits on the demands of residency training. He also succeeded in improving communication between medical educators and Congress, in an era when national health policies and budgets increasingly affected medical schools and their teaching hospitals.

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