Obituary: Thomas P. Detre / Visionary who took UPMC to top dies

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Thomas P. Detre, the renowned psychiatrist and academic leader whose drive and vision are credited with vaulting the University of Pittsburgh's health sciences schools to international prominence and with forging the transformation of the university's teaching hospitals into the UPMC global health system, died Saturday at his home in Point Breeze.

Announcement of Dr. Detre's death at age 86 following a long illness elicited accolades for his myriad accomplishments over the 30-year span since he came to Pitt from Yale University in 1973.

"Tom Detre was a real giant," said Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg. "He made unique, essential and immeasurable contributions to the elevation of the University of Pittsburgh, the creation of UPMC and the transformation of the Pittsburgh region.

"I never lose sight of the fact that the progress we are forging at Pitt today rests on a foundation that he played such a major role in building."

Dr. Detre was remembered as a gregarious, compassionate man brimming with wit, intelligence and charm, and with a Hungarian accent he never lost.

Dr. Neil Resnick, Thomas Detre professor at Pitt and chief of the division of geriatric medicine and gerontology at Pitt and UPMC, noted "his brilliance, his kindness, his vision, his commitment, his persistence, his political savvy, his idealism, his astounding abilities as a clinician and as a source of inspiration."

Dr. Detre succeeded at Pitt because he came "from the outside, he had vision and an awful lot of energy," said Bruce Dixon, a Pitt medical school faculty member and director of the Allegheny County Health Department.

"He was probably the single most important force that made UPMC the world class institution it is. He changed a fairly mediocre medical school to a top-notch school in academics and research by attracting exceptional faculty," Dr. Dixon said.

"He certainly wasn't shy, he was quite gregarious with an Old World charm to him with his European accent. He just had a warm personality."

During Dr. Detre's tenure as Pitt's senior vice chancellor for health sciences, he saw that advances in clinical practice could only be increased through research. He began the innovative practice of driving dollars from clinical practice into interdisciplinary research and then applying the results of those endeavors to clinical advances.

Some at Pitt were skeptical of Dr. Detre's approach, Dr. Dixon said, "but as things evolved almost everyone came around and saw the wisdom in his endeavor."

The approach attracted more patients and led to the growth of the university's medical arm and the ultimate realization of what is now UPMC, and it positioned the university to become one of the nation's top 10 recipients of research support from the National Institutes of Health -- a status Pitt notes it has maintained since 1997.

Jeffrey A. Romoff, UPMC president and chief executive officer, called Dr. Detre "an extraordinary visionary," noting that his keen eye for talent and the fostering of innovation led directly to the recruitment of "gifted individuals who have redefined medical practice and helped innumerable people around the world."

"Tom Detre laid the groundwork to build a nationally ranked and internationally respected school of medicine, as well as a global health enterprise that is second to none. His legacy will live on in so many ways," he said.

Dr. Detre began his career at Pitt in 1973 when he left a tenured position at Yale University to become director of Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic and chairman of the Department of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine.

He often told the story of a Yale colleague who, when hearing of his departure, said, "Planes fly over Pittsburgh. They don't land there." Dr. Detre's response: "They will land when we land," he said.

When Dr. Detre left Yale to come to Pitt, his "vision was so compelling," that about 30 colleagues followed him, Dr. Resnick said.

With accomplished physician-scientists and other talented health professionals alongside him, Dr. Detre started large-scale research programs, revamped psychiatric training and reinvented community outreach.

As WPIC director, Dr. Detre negotiated with the university to take control of hospital clinical revenues, with the aim of reinvesting profits into faculty recruitment, patient care and research. As a result of those strategies, the psychiatry department became one of the top three in NIH funding within a decade, and the number of its full-time faculty grew from 36 to almost 150 between 1974 and 1982.

Dr. David J. Kupfer, Thomas Detre professor of psychiatry at UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, was Dr. Detre's student at Yale and was among his first recruits from Yale to Pitt. He noted what a "talent scout" Dr. Detre proved to be in the 1970s and 1980s -- the same decades as the Pittsburgh Steelers rose to greatness.

"When the football team was doing so well, on the academic side and especially psychiatry, we were called the Pittsburgh Stealers. We were going after talent at Harvard, Stanford, Yale and Columbia and recruiting all these people to Pittsburgh," Dr. Kupfer said. "He was the coach of the Pittsburgh Stealers."

Because of his accomplishments in the Department of Psychiatry, university administrators asked him in 1982 to serve first as associate senior vice chancellor for the six health sciences schools and, two years later, as senior vice chancellor, a position he held until 1998.

"His philosophy of integrating research with the practice of medicine brought brilliant clinician-researchers to the university and altered its scientific landscape," said Arthur S. Levine, who succeeded Dr. Detre as senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and as dean of the school of medicine.

"He brought WPIC into the modern era of biological psychiatry and went on to foster science-based approaches throughout the health sciences schools, encouraging interdisciplinary efforts and high standards of scholarship that became and continue to be the foundation of our exceptional growth and achievement."

During the evolution of UPMC, Dr. Detre was at the helm from 1986 to 1990 as president of what was called the Medical and Health Care Division of the University of Pittsburgh and president of UPMC from 1990 to 1992. Between 1998 and 2004, he served as executive vice president of international and academic programs and later as medical director of international programs for UPMC Health System.

Since 2004, he held the titles of emeritus distinguished senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and emeritus distinguished service professor of psychiatry at Pitt.

Dr. Detre's drive and resolve were lifelong qualities. Born Tamas Feldmeier on May 17, 1924, in Budapest, Hungary, he was all of 14 when he decided to become a psychiatrist.

As a Jewish person living in Hungary, he eluded death in the Holocaust, but as a 20-year-old student discovered his parents and 20 other relatives had been killed at Auschwitz. To symbolize his will to live, the next year he renamed himself "Detre," a play on the French verb that means "to be."

He received a bachelor's degree in classical languages from the Gymnasium of Piarist Fathers in Kecskemet, Hungary, in 1942, and completed his medical degree at the University of Rome School of Medicine in 1952. He interned at Morrisania City Hospital in New York, and trained in psychiatry at Mount Sinai Hospital, New York, and Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn.

He held clinical and academic appointments at Yale-New Haven Hospital and had been psychiatrist-in-chief there from 1968 to 1973, when he moved to Pittsburgh with his wife of nearly 50 years, renowned epidemiologist Dr. Katherine M. Detre. She died in January 2006.

Dr. Resnick marveled at "what it took [for Dr. Detre] to try to recover from the massacre of his entire family and the destruction of his entire way of life and everything he knew and for him to be able to find a new way forward, to get himself to Italy, a medical education and to the United States.

"Within 10 years of his arriving here, unable to speak English, he had risen to become the professor of psychiatry and chairman of the department of psychiatry at one of the premier institutions of the world [at Yale]."

In addition to his numerous administrative accomplishments, Dr. Detre was a member of more than 20 medical societies and authored or co-authored scientific papers, textbook chapters and a well-recognized book on psychiatric treatment. He served on a variety of advisory boards for the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; served as president of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology; and was active on numerous committees and task forces for various organizations.

He also was the recipient of many professional honors. He was board chairman of the National Library of Medicine in 2005, received an honorary medical degree from Semmelweis University, Budapest, in 2003, and was named a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences in 1998.

In 2005, he was honored as a History Maker in Medicine and Health by the Heinz History Center, and in 2009 he was awarded an honorary doctor of humane letters degree by Carnegie Mellon University. In 2000, the university named the WPIC building Thomas Detre Hall.

Dr. Detre is survived by his second wife, Ellen Ormond; two sons, John A. of Philadelphia and Antony J. of New York City; and four grandchildren.

Arrangements are incomplete. Memorial gifts may be made to the Katherine Detre Scholarship Fund at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.

Michael A. Fuoco: or 412-263-1968; Eleanor Chute: or 412-263-1955.


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