James T. Willerson, Revered Clinician, Editor, and Mentor, Dies at 81

Colleagues and friends remember a warm, funny person with a legendary work ethic who cared deeply for his patients.

James T. Willerson, Revered Clinician, Editor, and Mentor, Dies at 81

Esteemed cardiologist James T. Willerson, MD, of the Texas Heart Institute, who pioneered research in unstable atherosclerotic plaques and was the longest-serving editor of Circulation, died after a long illness on September 16, 2020, at age 81.

“It's very easy to find his scientific contributions, which have been countless,” said longtime friend and colleague Mohammad Madjid, MD (University of Texas Health Science Center, Houston). “But if you knew him and saw how he worked, the thing that really stood out was how compassionate and genuine he was with his patients. He had an amazing rapport with them, and they knew he meant it when he said he was only one phone call away from them, 24-7,” Madjid added. “Over all the years that I knew him, I never saw him getting angry. He had a cool, gentle manner even under the most serious of circumstances.”

Paul Ridker, MD (Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA), told TCTMD Willerson will be “greatly missed.”

“Jim Willerson’s reach and influence were simply exceptional,” he said. “Early in my career, Jim reached out and was both supportive and inspirational. Over the years he became a friend and treasured research colleague.”

Renu Virmani, MD (CVPath Institute, Gaithersburg, MD), said she got to know Willerson through his passion to advance the field of atherosclerosis and his desire to figure out how to predict future cardiac events so as to treat them before catastrophe occurred. 

"While editor of Circulation, he encouraged everyone involved in research in this area, and I was one of the lucky ones whose career benefited from his passion, his curiosity, and his mentorship. I will always remember him as among the kindest and most humble leaders in our field," she said in an email. "His foresight did so much to advance knowledge in that field and I am deeply saddened by his passing."

In 2005, Willerson was the recipient of the TCT Career Achievement Award. “Jim Willerson was a towering figure in medicine,” Martin B. Leon, MD (NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, New York, NY), TCT’s founder and director, told TCTMD. “He had a legendary work ethic, set new standards as editor-in-chief of Circulation, and always reverted to his patient-centered origins as a revered clinician. Jim was soft-spoken and extremely humble, which belied his raging intellect, thirst for knowledge, and commitment to excellence. He will be remembered as a true giant in cardiology, setting the stage for the modern era.”

Gregg W. Stone, MD (Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, NY), also a TCT director, called Willerson “one of the true giants of medicine,” as well as the consummate scientist, educator, editor, academician and caregiver.

“He was also a warm person, inherently humble, but knew when to be outspoken and motivated generations of cardiologists. He will be greatly missed but always remembered,” Stone remarked.

A Texas-Sized Life

Willerson was born on the edge of the Texas Hill Country in Lampasas to parents who were both physicians. He attended school in San Antonio and Austin before receiving his medical degree from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. A championship swimmer in his college days, Willerson has a swimming scholarship named in his honor at his alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin.

In an interview published in 2018 in the European Heart Journal, he explained that a meeting arranged by his mother when he was just 14 years old, with the renowned cardiovascular surgeon Denton Cooley, MD, changed the arc of his life. Rather than a quick “hello,” Willerson recalled that the two spent 30 minutes speaking about Willerson’s interest in becoming a physician. The meeting was the start of an enduring friendship and collaboration with Cooley, who founded the Texas Heart Institute (THI) and performed the first successful artificial heart transplantation there in 1969. When Cooley stepped aside as president of THI at age 86, he chose Willerson to take the job. Willerson continued on, serving as president emeritus until his death.

He was the best role model that anyone could have, and the most lovable human you could ever want to be around. Mohammad Madjid

For many years, Madjid said, Willerson and Cooley worked in offices next-door to each other, remaining close until Cooley’s death in 2016.

Throughout his long career, Willerson pioneered research on the detection and treatment of vulnerable atherosclerotic plaques, as well as genes and abnormal proteins. As a result of his research, he was awarded 15 patents, and his institution became the site of the first US Food and Drug Administration-approved trial of human stem cells to treat ischemic cardiomyopathies and congestive HF. Over his career, he published an estimated 1,000 scientific papers and wrote one of the first textbooks on nuclear cardiology.

Juan Granada, MD, CEO of the Cardiovascular Research Foundation (CRF), who spent time as a fellow at Baylor College of Medicine and worked closely with Willerson, said they shared an interest in vulnerable plaque research and translational medicine.

“He was very entrepreneurial, very innovative, and one of the hardest working people that I ever met in my life,” Granada noted. He recalled that during Willerson’s long tenure as editor of Circulation, he would often personally contact authors to sort through problems that cropped up during the review process.

“This is essentially unheard of nowadays, but he would actually call you on the phone and say, ‘Hey, I got this comment. Let’s talk it through.’ He was amazing and unique in what he did, and he was a beautiful, caring person on top of it,” Granada added.

To TCTMD, Madjid said of his mentor, “He had my back through everything. When I was down, he was there. When I needed help or to talk, he was always there. He was the best role model that anyone could have, and the most lovable human you could ever want to be around.”

Following the Texas Heart Institute’s announcement of Willerson’s death, colleagues and friends took to Twitter to share their memories.


Photo Credit: Mohammad Madjid