To most American families, the notion that a child might aspire to be a doctor would be met with peals of glee, but for the parents of Elias Zerhouni, this was not quite the case. His father and mother held other aspirations for their child.
“I was steeped in an environment where education was of primary importance,” Zerhouni recalls. “My father, a mathematician and physicist, was more enamored with science and engineering than he was with medicine or law. He thought I should go in that direction. My mother agreed.”
Zerhouni didn’t necessarily disagree. He pursued math and physics with zeal in high school. But a stint volunteering with the rural poor in the mountains of Algeria led the young Zerhouni to an epiphany of sorts.
“I saw the poverty and the people suffering from tuberculosis, having no doctors and no way to get treated. I was touched by that,” Zerhouni says of his decision to enter medicine.
After completing his medical degree at the University of Algiers, he decided to take the American board exams, almost on a whim, despite knowing little English. When his scores returned, his mentors at the University of Algiers were stunned to learn he had passed on his first attempt — the first-ever student at the university to pass the American exams.
Soon, Zerhouni was off to Baltimore to become a resident in radiology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He became chief resident, a professor, director of the Russell H. Morgan Department of Radiology and Radiological Science, and eventually vice dean for clinical affairs and research for the school of medicine while conducting field-altering research. In 2002, he was nominated by President George W. Bush to head the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a position he held until 2008.
In 2009, Zerhouni became a senior fellow at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and concurrently served as one of the country’s first presidential science envoys under the Obama administration to foster scientific and technological collaboration with other nations. Starting in 2011, he held the position of president for global research and development at French pharmaceutical company Sanofi, until his retirement in 2018. Since March 2019, Zerhouni has served as professor emeritus and special adviser to the Dean/CEO.
Before launching that illustrious career in medicine, Zerhouni sheepishly admits he almost quit medical school, finding the field too rote and the science unexciting, just as his father had predicted. It was only when his uncle, a fellow radiologist, showed him the world’s first CT scan that everything changed.
“I thought, this is exactly what I want — a mix between physics, mathematics, computer science, biology and medicine,” Zerhouni remembers. “For me, it was a revelation.”
Upon completing his tenure at NIH, Zerhouni returned to the friendly halls of Johns Hopkins, where he continued to teach, conduct research and see patients.
“Dr. Zerhouni is legendary at our institution — first as a resident, then as director of radiology and later as head of NIH. His legacy is one of excellence and innovation,” says Karen Horton, director of the department. “We are grateful for his continued support of the Hopkins mission. I truly value his investment in and loyalty to our department.”
Recently, a new professorship was endowed in the department — the Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D. Professorship, established with donations from Elias and Nadia Zerhouni, alumni, faculty members and colleagues. The income from the endowment allows the recipient to focus additional time on teaching and mentoring future generations of radiologists.
“Hopkins is my home away from home. I have the deepest admiration and respect for the institution. It’s my intellectual family. There’s no other place in America that I would rather have a professorship with my name affiliated,”Zerhouni says of this honor.
The inaugural recipient of the professorship is Hanzhang Lu, professor of radiology and chief of the neurofunction section of the magnetic resonance research division. Lu is an internationally recognized leader in MRI of brain function and physiology who has developed new MRI techniques to evaluate the brain’s vascular physiology, metabolism and function, and their clinical applications.
“It is an honor and a privilege to be the inaugural recipient of the Zerhouni Professorship, as it will provide the resources for me to pursue innovative and groundbreaking advances in the field of MR research, with the ultimate goals of improving patient care and training the next generation of leaders in the field. I am truly grateful to be part of this meaningful way to honor Elias Zerhouni’s legacy and dedication to the field,” says Lu.
“Dr. Lu represents the future in brain sciences,” says Zerhouni. “This is the real last frontier of cognitive sciences and neurosciences, and he is an emerging leader in the field.”