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an online version of the magazine Spring/Summer 2007
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Back to the Future

Jeremiah Barondess
> Barondess, photographed in his office at the New York Academy of Medicine in March.

Barondess now plans to study the youthful roots of our afflictions.

 

Every now and then, retirement actually heralds a great second act. Having spent the last 16 years transforming the long-moribund New York Academy of Medicine into a dynamic center of urban health studies, Jeremiah Barondess ’49 sees his future not as the sunset of his career but as the dawn of a new one.

After more than a half-century of battling the great scourges that plague so many of us through the winter of our lives—heart disease, obesity and diabetes, etc.—Barondess will now study how those conditions take root in the spring of our lives.

“Eighty percent of the deaths in the U.S. result from chronic diseases,” says Barondess, who turns 83 in June. “Nearly half of those deaths are due to things people do to themselves.” Citing the mounting evidence that such risks are established early in one’s life, Barondess is convinced that “our ideas about how to prevent or mitigate those diseases need to be revised.”

The world of medicine may want to take note. In a stunning six-decade career, Barondess has transformed virtually everything he touched. He’s inspired young physicians at Cornell Med. He’s retooled the governance structure of Hopkins’ medical school. And—at the request of the mayor of New York City—he’s revised that metropolis’s tangled municipal hospital system.

 

SOME STUDENTS AT NEW YORK HOSPITAL used to call Jerry Barondess “the Duke.” Others remember calling him “Dr. Oh-So-Smooth.” Friends describe him as impeccably attired, courtly in demeanor, effortlessly eloquent, seemingly infallible.

Louis Aronne ’81, who’s been at Cornell since the early ’80s, remembers that when Barondess was conducting weekly rounds there during his tenure as a professor of medicine from 1955 to 1990, residents who were presenting baffling cases purposely withheld patient information to try to stump him. They rarely succeeded, many recalled during a two-hour marathon of tributes to Barondess last November, following his retirement from the New York Academy.

The object of those rounds, Barondess says now, was to emulate the clinical processes that he learned from Mac [A. McGehee] Harvey, head of the Department of Medicine at Hopkins and physician in chief from 1946 to 1973: “Take a careful, accurate history, do a really meticulous physical examination, decide what the clinical conundrum is, and go about it all in an organized way.”

That rigor became the hallmark of every new venture that Barondess took on. Starting in 1978, he began a 14-year turn on Hopkins’ board of trustees, serving as founding chair of its advisory council for the School of Medicine. “Jerry is good at this sort of thing and plunges in with vigor,” Dean Emeritus Richard Ross noted at a tribute to Barondess last October.

“You may also realize,” Ross added drolly, that “Barondess is best when he’s in charge. He and I had some things to sort out. We had to figure out who was the dean and who was the trustee. It all got worked out without bloodshed, strengthened our friendship and, more importantly, strengthened the institution.”

As head of the advisory council, Barondess arranged for its dozen members to conduct unprecedented visits to School of Medicine departments to talk with everyone from house staff to chairs and then report periodically to the board about the School’s condition and problems. The most important outcome of this process may have been the board’s decision to conduct five-year reviews of departmental chairs and also to create a system of annual departmental reports. Much of the School’s continued excellence in science, education and clinical activities, Ross says, springs directly from that committee’s work.

Barondess applied that same strategy to the New York Academy of Medicine when he was named its president in 1990. Quickly transforming the hidebound, 160-year-old academy into a more effective public health institution, Barondess came to the attention of then-New York Mayor David Dinkins, who asked him to investigate the workings of the bloated bureaucracy running the city’s troubled municipal hospitals. Within five years, the New York Times reported a “dramatic turnaround” in the hospitals’ operation, including the first-ever positive cash flow.

Current New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a JHU alum and former chairman of the board of trustees, says Barondess “has been a great partner in the city’s effort to improve the health and extend the lives of New Yorkers.” What’s more, he’s “devoted himself to advancing public health in the two places closest to my heart,” Bloomberg exudes, “New York City and Johns Hopkins University.”

At his retirement, the Academy created the Jeremiah A. Barondess Fellowship in Clinical Transaction, with a $2 million endowment. Barondess says he’ll be “involved to some degree or other as a consultant” at the Academy. He’s also been offered “a number of very nice invitations to opine here and there” and plans to resume teaching as a faculty member of Cornell’s School of Public Health.

Meanwhile, Barondess and his wife, Linda (a leader in the American Geriatrics Society), enjoy the opera and New York Philharmonic. But what’s clear is that Jerry Barondess is by no means retiring—six decades or not.star

 

Neil A. Grauer


 
 
 
 
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 Ten Years at the Top
 Just Say 'Ah'
 A Kind of Calling
 
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