A half century ago, when Dwight Eisenhower was president and World War II was a fresh memory, Dr. Thomas Q. Morris came to P&S as a medical student. Over most of the next 50 years, through 10 presidents, a New York City fiscal crisis, the start of the AIDS epidemic and the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, Dr. Morris's career indeed his life has been inextricably bound to P&S and CPMC. In August, Dr. Morris retired.
"I guess you could say that I'm one of those people who believes once you find a good thing, you stick with it," Dr. Morris says.
There was no way Dr. Morris could know, when he arrived at P&S in 1954, magna cum laude out of the University of Notre Dame, that most of his career would be spent here. There was also no way he could know, in those early student years, that he would one day develop an interest in administration that would propel him to leadership positions in both the medical school and the hospital.
The youngest of three children, Dr. Morris was born into a hard-working family in Yonkers, N.Y. in 1933.
"My father didn't finish high school because of family responsibilities, but both he and my mother, a pianist, instilled in us a tremendous work ethic," Dr. Morris says. "We were expected to work hard in all aspects of our lives, in our part-time jobs and at school."
Dr. Morris was interested in medicine right from the outset of college.
"I was premed as a freshman," he says. "I had the sense when applying to college that I would find in medicine a career that was interesting and challenging and fun. And I was right."
After graduating from P&S in 1958, Dr. Morris spent the next four years as an intern and resident at Bellevue, and then two years in the Air Force in Belleville, Ill. at a large military hospital base. He remembers his time at Belleville caring for military dependents and retirees, training as a cardiovascular specialist, running a cardiopulmonary lab as "just wonderful." It was during his service at Belleville that Dr. Morris had an experience that would prove to have a great impact on his future career.
"One day, Dr. Dickinson Richards, [one of the 1956 winners of the Nobel Prize in medicine and a fellow P&S graduate then at Washington University in St. Louis], called and invited me and my wife to St. Louis because he wanted to see what advice he could offer me," Dr. Morris says. "I was so struck by this act of kindness, the willingness of this great man to mentor me. And, he was not the first." Dr. Morris cites Dr. Charles Ragan, chief of service at Bellevue Hospital, and several P&S senior faculty for helping guide his career. "These were people who sought me out, provided good guidance and cared about what happened to me. My career really evolved because of my wonderful mentors."
Leadership at P&S
Dr. Morris' experience with being mentored led to a desire to improve and implement programs to benefit students. Beginning in the early 1970s, Dr. Morris' career path at P&S expanded and he began to take on administrative responsibilities, in addition to teaching and seeing patients.
In 1978, Dr. Morris, then an associate professor of clinical medicine, became the acting chairman of the Department of Medicine after the death of the chairman, Dr. Dan Kimberg.
"I expected that position to last for about a year, but it went on for four," he says. "And to my surprise, although being chairman was a tough job, it was a great pleasure to help students and residents progress."
Dr. Morris' time as chairman of medicine was punctuated by an unforeseen medical challenge the emergence of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
"Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, we had people showing up in the ER with high fevers, rapid weight loss, rashes. They were desperately ill, but we didn't know what was making them sick," Dr. Morris says. As department head, it fell upon Dr. Morris to help his residents through "open, honest conversations," deal with their concerns about caring for patients with a uniformly fatal disease caused by an unknown infectious agent.
"We met every morning to review each admission from the night before, to look at X-rays. Most HIV patients at that time came in with pneumocystis pneumonia," Dr. Morris says. "We quickly went from not knowing what was going on, to being able to see the infectious agent under the microscope and take appropriate precautions. We soon understood we were looking at a new disease that would be the biggest scourge of medicine for years to come."
After four years as acting chair, Dr. Morris left to become associate dean for academic affairs, a role that involved dealing with medical students, academic promotions and appointments.
"For the next few years in this position I was able to get a broader overview of what was happening in the institution and understand its mission more fully," he says.
Tapped to Head Hospital
In the mid-80s, Presbyterian Hospital was searching for a new president. The hospital trustees turned to Dr. Morris and in 1985 he was named president, a position he would hold for the next five years.
The biggest and most immediate challenge facing the hospital was its inadequate facilities. "It was the 1980s, and the hospital was in its original 1928 building," Dr. Morris says. "There had been modest renovations through the years, but it was significantly behind in the number of semi-private beds, in support space for clinical activities. We weren't the only hospital suffering; all New York hospitals were. There had been a moratorium on building because tight reimbursement policies prevented hospitals from generating a surplus."
The trustees felt that without expansion, Presbyterian Hospital would stagnate. So, with $427 million in financing from the state the first monies the state allocated for a major hospital expansion and $100 million raised through philanthropic donations, the construction of the Milstein Hospital Building began in late 1985 on the site of Maxwell Hall. Milstein Hospital opened in 1989, providing services for both adults and children.
At the same time, under Dr. Morris' auspices, construction also began on the Allen Pavilion at the northern tip of Manhattan. "With its expanded ER and new programs, Allen is providing a wonderful service to the community. P&S clinical departments have embraced this venture," he says.
Over the next decade, Dr. Morris accepted positions as vice president for programs and senior adviser to the New York Academy of Medicine; associate chair of the Department of Medicine; and vice dean of the faculty of medicine. In 2000, Dr. Morris, along with Dr. David Hirsh, served as interim dean until the appointment of Dr. Gerald Fischbach. Dr. Morris was responsible for education and clinical affairs; Dr. Hirsh for research. Upon his retirement, Dr. Morris was vice president of Health Sciences; vice dean of the Faculties of Medicine and Health Sciences, and Alumni Professor of Clinical Medicine.
Even though Dr. Morris and his wife are moving from their long-time home in suburban Westchester to their beautiful country home in the northern Catskills, Dr. Morris has no plans for slowing down in retirement. He will continue his work with Bassett Hospital in Cooperstown, a 140-bed rural hospital that is a teaching affiliate of Columbia, which Dr. Morris calls, "a model of health care delivery" and where he has been a board member since 1980. Dr. Morris is also on the board of the American University of Beirut, traveling there several times each year. And he will continue his work with several foundations.
Dr. Morris has a few hobbies he plans to indulge in building stone walls and working in the vegetable gardens his wife has created. And while he will still be on campus almost every week, he is confident about the future of the institution he helped shape.
"Of course it's bittersweet to leave a place that has been part of my life for so long," he says. "But I feel good knowing that I'm leaving the Health Sciences in capable hands, with people who have great ideas and great plans. I know things are only going to get better."