The Colgate Scene
July 2001
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Doctor and dean

by John D. Hubbard
Dr. Gerald Fischbach '60 is running late, but he is hardly flustered. His schedule is supersaturated, but given his ambition -- to make Columbia "the very best institution for learning and discovery in medicine" -- getting backed up is all in a (long) day's work.

     The challenge was fundamental in Fischbach's decision to leave the National Institutes of Health, where he directed the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

     "I had been at NIH for almost three years and it was a very, very hard decision to leave. There were a lot of things underway."

     Among the most major of the projects Fischbach helped initiate was a 600,000-square-foot center in which eight different NIH institutes will move their neuroscience research.

     Despite the scope and excitement of his work at NIH, Fischbach discovered he missed academia -- though when Columbia asked him to serve as a consultant in its search for a vice president and dean of the health sciences, he agreed but insisted he wasn't interested in the job himself.

     "Over the course of a month I did become interested. Columbia is a wonderful institution, a wonderful university and it has a great medical school."

     As vice president for health and biomedical sciences, dean of the faculty of health sciences and dean of the faculty of medicine since the first of the year, Fischbach has set a straightforward goal. He told an internal publication the mission of the school and medical center was to use all of Columbia's resources to reduce the burden of human disease.

     Part of the appeal of the job, in addition to Columbia's reputation, is the fact that, as Fischbach puts it, "it could be much better." The physical plant is "needy" and the neighborhood, while improving, requires attention.

     "One Hundred Sixty-eighth Street was a difficult place to be. There was barbed wire everywhere, with homeless men wandering the street day and night. It wasn't safe. Now it's a community with schools and stores. Columbia is playing a role in that."

     Among the topics of the many meetings that consume Fischbach's days is the hospital's need for renovated and new space and for the consolidation of services that have been scattered over time "all through this warren of older buildings."

     An outpatient can spend an entire day tracking down locations for x-rays, EKGs and other tests. "These services all should be coordinated in beautiful new space."

     There are building opportunities, but even more important than real estate is the clear idea, the notion, of what medicine is going to look like in 25 years. In that regard, Fischbach feels Columbia needs, more than a business manager, someone with "a vision about biomedical science and some vision on how to develop those ideas."

     It is the target at which Fischbach feels his entire career has been pointing.

     After graduating from Colgate, he went to Cornell Medical School on East 69th Street in New York with an idea of going on for a Ph.D. The realities of Vietnam and opportunities at NIH made it "a wonderful time" to pursue laboratory science. Uninterrupted research time produced in the late '60s and early '70s a golden age at NIH.

     During an eight-year stay, Fischbach worked on the development of connections between nerve cells and perfecting techniques for isolating nerve cells from the brain and spinal cord and muscle.

     The research continued following a move to Harvard, until Fischbach left for Washington University in St. Louis and ten years as the chair of neurobiology. Then it was back to Harvard in a similar role, with the added responsibility of chairing the department at Mass General as well. It was from there that Fischbach returned to the NIH.

     "All the time we've had a home in Woods Hole. That's been the center of our family life." That includes wife Ruth, a professor of biomedical ethics in psychiatry at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, and four grown children, Elissa Grayer, Peter, Neal and Mark. Fischbach also taught, and now occasionally lectures, at the marine biology lab there.

     Nearly as important to the administrator with the far-reaching responsibilities is science. Even in the face of his enormous workloads, throughout his career he maintained a laboratory and plans to establish a lab at Columbia. "I feel a little out of whack right now, spending all my time in this office or meetings."

     "Gerry Fischbach is a highly respected researcher," Columbia President George Rupp said in announcing the appointment, "and a far-sighted leader who has had a distinguished career at NIH and the Harvard and Washington University medical schools. He is superbly qualified to meet the challenges and opportunities of leading a world-class health and biomedical sciences center."

     Fischbach traces some of those qualities back to Colgate. He was the president of Phi Gam, an office that required him to work "with people on everything from academics to career services." He was also very studious and recalls a course with Professor of Chemistry Emeritus Joe Thurner as a turning point. Fischbach offered an answer to a problem set that was contrary to all the other solutions.

     "It was a real epiphany, the way he reacted, the way it made me feel. Professor Thurner let me know thinking independently was a good thing. It made me feel I could do it," says Fischbach, who went on to major in mathematics with a thesis on game theory for predicting uncertain solutions.

     "I grew at Colgate. I gained a tremendous amount of confidence." Fischbach also realized a hallmark of his life's work.

     "I'm interested in a lot of things and I love building things.

     "This is an extraordinary time in biomedical and health sciences," says Fischbach on the Columbia website. "Advances at all levels of analysis, ranging from molecules to behavior, have begun to revolutionize the practice of medicine. Investigators throughout Columbia have contributed enormously to this revolution. It is a privilege to join this distinguished faculty and help shape its course in the coming years."

     So Fischbach finds himself at a great school at a time when it needs to change and, as he always has, he finds change interesting and exciting.

     "I see the role of a dean -- and I think this species is disappearing -- as a role model. Everybody's busy here. I don't see why a dean should be any different." And with that Gerry Fischbach, dean and doctor, is off, running late but maintaining an excellent pace.

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