T. Franklin Williams, M.D.
T. Franklin Williams, M.D., a founding father of the field of geriatric medicine in the United States and a mentor and model for dozens of geriatricians, died at his home in Rochester, N.Y., Nov. 25, 2011, the day before what would have been his 90th birthday. The cause was complications from pneumonia.
Dr. Williams, a professor emeritus of medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center, was the second director of the National Institute on Aging (NIA) of the National Institutes of Health, serving from 1983 to 1991. Through a research and teaching career of 40 years in Rochester and his administrative leadership, Dr. Williams changed the way the aging are cared for and perceived.
“Frank Williams was an outstanding geriatrician, researcher, and administrator who was inspired by the possibilities of advanced age,” said NIA Director Richard J. Hodes, M.D. “He wanted to know how it was possible to achieve and maintain high functioning, good health, and a sharp mind well into late life. He achieved this ideal for himself and worked hard to achieve it for many others. He will be greatly missed.”
As NIA director, Dr. Williams established several programs that continue today, including an increased research effort on Alzheimer’s disease, the longitudinal Health and Retirement Study, promotion of specialized training for geriatric researchers, and collaboration with international organizations to study aging around the world.
Dr. Williams served as director of Monroe Community Hospital in Rochester from 1968 to 1983 and as a professor of medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry for almost 40 years. In those positions, he mentored physicians, directed research and educated the community on a more humane view of people as they aged.
“Frank Williams was a giant in the field, but as a resident I didn't know that,” said Rosanne Leipzig, M.D. (BA ’72, R ’82), professor of geriatrics Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City who trained under Dr. Williams. “He was simply an extraordinary role model who led by example and taught all of us that there was art and a lot of science in providing good care to older adults. Many of the current leaders in and supporters of American geriatrics have a significant Rochester connection; this is due to Frank and his infectious love of the field and the patients.”
In an essay he wrote in 1981, Dr. Williams described the goals of his work in geriatrics: “It is to rid ourselves, our society, and even our language, of the numerous negative terms, stereotypes and myths concerning aging . . . The children, friends and health-care providers of older people need to give their symptoms the same respect and attention as those of younger people.”
Dr. Williams said the potential for a new approach in geriatrics and gerontology “is not only to add years to our life but also to add life to our years. It is hard to think of a more promising or profitable investment.”
Dr. Williams achieved his goals.
Mary Tinetti, M.D. (FLW ’84), the Gladys Philips Crofoot Professor of Medicine and Public Health at Yale University School of Medicine, said Dr. Williams “has contributed to the quality of life of millions of older adults through his own work, his leadership roles, and his influence as a teacher and mentor.”
“His early work encouraged inquiry into the causes and complications of diabetes in older adults. He was an early proponent of focusing on function in daily life in the health care of older adults. The current recognition of the importance of measuring function and of focusing on improvements in daily functioning for persons with chronic conditions can be traced to the groundbreaking work of Dr. Williams and his colleagues,” said Tinetti, who was a geriatric fellow under Dr. Williams.
Born in Belmont, N.C., Dr. Williams developed an early interest in chemistry. His father died when Dr. Williams was 12. He, his mother and a younger brother moved in with his grandparents who saw to it, Dr. Williams said, that he did not acquire any “rocking-chair” stereotype for older people.
Dr. Williams graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of North Carolina in 1942 with a degree in chemistry. He studied organic chemistry at Columbia University, where he earned a master’s degree. World War II interrupted his academic education. He served as a communications officer in the U.S. Navy aboard a cruiser.
His World War II experiences led him to reconsider a career in chemistry and move into medicine. He graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1950, and then served his internship and residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital and later Boston Veterans Administration Hospital.
Dr. Williams joined the University of North Carolina faculty as an instructor in 1956 and rose to the rank of professor of medicine and preventive medicine. He conducted significant research on diabetes and other metabolic diseases. He also began his studies of ways to provide better care to people with long-term or chronic diseases, which were most commonly associated with the elderly.
In 1968, he became the first medical director under a new affiliation between Monroe County and the University of Rochester. Dr. Williams transformed Monroe Community Hospital into an internationally respected center for innovations in geriatric medicine.
After his eight years of service as director of the National Institute on Aging, Dr. Williams returned to Rochester, Monroe Community Hospital and the University, where he continued as a scholar, teacher and attending physician. He also was active in the Rochester community, speaking at workshops on aging.
In 1995, he was appointed Distinguished Physician at the Canandaigua, N.Y., Veterans Administration Medical Center by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. From 1992 through 2002, he also served as scientific director of the American Federation for Aging Research.
Through the years, Dr. Williams often could be seen riding his bicycle to the hospital. He continued riding his bike well into his 80s. He also continued to mentor physicians, see patients and make rounds with students until just a few years ago.
Dr. Williams, the author or co-author of more than 100 scientific papers and book chapters, was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences in 1976. He was a fellow of the American College of Physicians, American Association for Advancement of Science, Gerontological Society of America, and American Public Health Association.
Dr. Williams is survived by his wife of almost 60 years, the former Catharine Carter Catlett. A medical social worker, she joined Dr. Williams on his trips around the world, gathering information on models of approaches to aging and working to implement new approaches in this country.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by two children, Mary Wright Williams Montague of Gloucester, Virginia, and a son, Thomas Nelson Williams of Rochester; four grandchildren and two step-grandchildren.
Contributions in his memory can be made to the church or to the T. Franklin Williams Foundation at Monroe Community Hospital, 435 East Henrietta, Rochester, N.Y., 14620.
Match Day 2012
The drama of Match Day moved to Whipple Auditorium this year, where both tension and spirits were high.
The Future of Medical Education
Philip Pizzo, M.D., dean of the Stanford School of Medicine and a Class of 1970 graduate of the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, discussed the future of medical education during a January visit to Rochester.
Power of Posters
Intrigued by a poster about preventing AIDS that he saw on a Boston subway car in the early 1990s, Edward Atwater, M.D. (M '50), began collecting AIDS education posters to track how different societies viewed and responded to the epidemic.
Praising and sustaining the Rochester model
(Best viewed on a PC using Internet Explorer. Mac users need to have the Silverlight plug-in.)