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American Journal of the Medical Sciences:
doi: 10.1097/MAJ.0000000000000248
In Memoriam

James Pittman, MD: A View From Ground Level

Ploth, David W. MD

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Editor-in-Chief The American Journal of the Medical Sciences Medical University of South Carolina Charleston, South Carolina Email:

My early personal encounters with Dr. James Pittman were under, what seemed at the time, most unusual circumstances. I had first met him, as I believe every new or recruited faculty had, before I was offered a position. In retrospect how remarkable even that was. I was a recently arrived, very junior and very insecure research scientist-clinician in the Nephrology Division at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. On what I called “my experiment days,” I arrived at work very early to get a head start on the day’s experiment. About 7 a.m., alone in the lab, I would be sitting at my lab bench with a cup of coffee and doing preparative surgery with an operating microscope. Several times during those early years I felt a presence in the room. It was strange, but I’d look up and find Jim Pittman standing quietly in the doorway. In his usual jovial way, he would say “Good morning, how you doing?” The initial conversations focused on our new lab complex, which he had helped us acquire, and how it was working for us. In later years, he would ask about progress of the group, recent grants or awards, new individuals, visitors, etc. I was always impressed that he knew a surprising amount about each of us as well as what was going on at our level day-to-day. Further, he seemed genuinely interested in our collective and individual professional progress. I encountered him several times in the lab doorway like this during my tenure at UAB. My presumption was that he generally arrived at work very early to walk through buildings to see what was going on, and where. Even then, I found this amazing for someone of his stature and position, given the burden of tasks that he must have faced during the rest of his day. What an exceptional approach to management.

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An additional, memorable encounter with Dr. Pittman occurred many years later. At this time, I was senior faculty and being recruited to another institution. I remember running into him at the Southern Society for Clinical Investigation meeting in New Orleans. I thought it would be appropriate to ask Dr. Pittman what he would think about my options and asked him if he would talk with me about this current opportunity. He said, “of course, why don’t we meet for breakfast the next morning?” I remember sitting in the open atrium of the Hyatt Hotel, where the meeting was held those years, having breakfast with Dr. Pittman. We thoroughly discussed the job opportunity and during a 2 hour or so discussion he explained some of the background information he knew about the institution that was recruiting me. I was impressed with the depth and breadth of the information about this different institution that he had at his fingertips. He knew all about the upper level leadership and recommended them, and he thought the resources made available to me for the recruitment and building a new program were good, or better, for success. As we closed, he recommended that the job was a very good opportunity and I should seriously consider taking it. Prior to that conversation I had been on the fence about leaving UAB. Dr. Pittman’s encouragement and critical analysis of career pathway options, lead me to the conclusion that what he was saying was realistic and on-target. I have always thought it was most remarkable that someone of his stature would take such personal interest in individual faculty, and not just me, but each of us there at UAB during the time he was Dean. I have never forgotten that conversation; the objective analysis brought to bear on that opportunity, nor Jim Pittman for the time and personal attention he generously gave that day. I left UAB for that new position. Significantly, his analysis was “on the mark”; the position proven to be an excellent opportunity.

These days, I get emails about mentoring and mentoring plans and letters about what the leadership of my institution is doing or going to do. Jim Pittman lived mentoring from the ground up—he may have invented the concept. In seemingly small but not insignificant ways, he mentored each of us. Dr. Jim Pittman had a vision for what UAB should be and he actuated it in the most effective leadership style imaginable. His communication was direct and personal.

Of note, Jim Pittman loved the SSCI and attended the annual meeting nearly every year. The Tinsley Harrison Award for the best manuscript published in the American Journal of the Medical Sciences each year was his personal brainchild. Until recently, I did not know that he privately funded the Harrison Award for the period of time that he was Dean. Thank you, Jim Pittman---for everything.

Copyright © 2014 by the Southern Society for Clinical Investigation.


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