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an online version of the magazine Spring/Summer 2007
Where Are They Now?
 
 

Our Man in Nashville

Jeremiah Barondess
> Friesinger put Vanderbilt “in the modern era of cardiology.”

Bud Friesinger spent 25 years at Hopkins and then moved to Vanderbilt. Now, he’s writing about how the second was actually a clone of the first.

 

Somewhere outside Nashville, gathering dust in a garage, sits a large box. Inside is what Gottlieb C. (Bud) Friesinger thought he’d spend his time on when he retired from Vanderbilt University Medical Center in 2002. Figuring he wouldn’t have much to do, Friesinger bought a harpsichord kit to assemble. So far, he hasn’t found time to start.

Instead, Friesinger, now professor emeritus, spends nearly 40 hours each week volunteer teaching Vanderbilt’s post-doctoral fellows in cardiology. He also serves on the admissions committee for that medical school, dotes on his six grandchildren, and reads the books his wife Jan and their daughters recommend, so—in his words—he won’t “become a dullard.” 

But Friesinger’s real labor of love is his research. He’s writing what he likes to call “a little history.” Titled “The Vanderbilt-Johns Hopkins Connection: A Case Study of Medical Education in the 20th Century,” he’s penned 180 pages to date. 

Friesinger is perfectly suited to such a project, according to his longtime friend Richard Johns, who 50 years ago served as chief resident when Friesinger was an assistant resident. “Bud’s thoughtful and analytical and very, very good at describing situations,” says Johns, now the School of Medicine’s Distinguished Service Professor.

Before moving to Vanderbilt, Friesinger spent 25 years at Hopkins—first as a student at the School of Medicine (Class of 1955), then as a resident and finally as a faculty cardiologist. And ever since first setting foot on campus in 1951, fresh from tiny Muskingum College in his home state of Ohio, he’s been intrigued by the history of medicine. “Hopkins was an exceptionally exciting environment,” he says. “Once I got here, I took History of Medicine as an elective. You become aware early on of the School’s philosophy—the tight coupling of research and teaching. Research can make for a very exciting teacher.” 

Still, Vanderbilt, Friesinger says, is a kind of Hopkins clone. That’s why he’s having such a good time tying together the two institutions. “Hopkins became the model for all American medical schools,” he explains, “and also for the residency system.”

In his study, part of what Friesinger hopes to capture is the excitement of being at Hopkins during the great postwar years when medicine was moving forward at such a rapid rate. Responsible for those advances were several of Friesinger’s teachers. He worked closely with cardiac surgeon Alfred Blalock, pioneer of the blue baby operation. He also conferred daily during his residency with the eminent diagnostician A. McGehee (Mac) Harvey in one-on-one meetings. 

“This was mentoring in the truest sense of the word,” Friesinger says. “Now it’s a catch phrase, but then it just happened. A handful of people made me who I am, and I’ve spent a lifetime trying to give back.”

But Friesinger helped shape his field, too, Hopkins longtimers make clear. In 1967, he became the founding director of the Coronary Care Unit. A year later, he also was directing the Myocardial Infarction Research Unit for the Johns Hopkins Hospital, the first of five institutions to receive an NIH award to create such a unit in the CCU.

“There were naysayers who didn’t think the CCU was a good idea,” Friesinger recalls… “who believed that after a heart attack, the patient needed peace and quiet, not a fish bowl.” But the techniques he’d worked hard on in the Cath Lab, he acknowledges, went on to become important to patient treatment everywhere.

Today, cardiologist Mike Weisfeldt, Hopkins physician-in-chief, and the William Osler Professor of Medicine, attests to Friesinger’s role in advancing cardiac care. “Bud is one of the real pioneers,” Weisfeldt says. “His were the initial efforts to understand acute myocardial infarction. He was responsible for taking the one-year mortality rate from 40 percent to 4 percent. It’s one of the great miracles of modern medicine.” 

Such successes led, of course, to national prominence for Friesinger, and in the late 1960s, Vanderbilt began trying to recruit him. He’d received offers before from leading medical centers, but after each visit returned with a renewed sense of his role at Hopkins. Vanderbilt was different, Friesinger says. “When I visited, I saw a lot of Hopkins. The most important decision for me was the character of the institution—that’s my Hopkins showing through. Vanderbilt’s resources were terrible, but the opportunities and people were exceptional.” 

And so, in 1970, Friesinger left Baltimore to become Vanderbilt’s first director of cardiology. “I tried to replicate what I’d seen happen at Hopkins in the 1960s,” he says of the position he would hold for the next 20 years. “But I only had four faculty members.” Twenty years later, he had more than 20. 

Today, testimonials to Friesinger abound at the Nashville school. “Vanderbilt didn’t have a strong department before Bud came,” says Harry Jacobson, that university’s vice chancellor for health affairs, who was a medical house officer at Hopkins in the early 1970s. “He really put Vanderbilt in the modern era of cardiology and built the foundation for what is one of the top cardiology programs in the country. Bud’s one of the faculty members whose opinion I still really value.”

Friesinger’s counsel also continues to hold value for his alma mater. From 1992 to 2003, he served on the Johns Hopkins Medicine Board of Trustees, chairing the External Advisory Committee for the Institute for Advanced Science and Technology in Medicine. Today he is a presidential councilor for the University.

Still, in Friesinger’s eyes, perhaps his greatest legacy may be the career of a certain assistant professor at the Vanderbilt Heart and Vascular Institute who’s also a cardiologist. His only son, Chris (G. Christian Friesinger III), practiced as an emergency medicine specialist before deciding to follow his father’s specialty. “I could no longer deny my destiny,” Chris chuckles. “Over the years my father and I have been able to discuss so many individual patient problems. I have access to an expert anytime.”

These days, the large, long-forgotten harpsichord box occupies real estate in Chris’s garage, but is rarely mentioned. Instead, talk at weekly dinners typically revolves around family and professional activities. And those topics invariably lead to the institution that shaped the elder Friesinger. “Hopkins never left me,” Bud Friesinger says. “My body, mind and energies went to Vanderbilt, but my soul stayed on Broadway.” star

 

Sarah Achenbach


 
 
 
 
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