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“In Harris We Trust"

Peter Harris Leaves Legacy with Department of Pediatrics’ Residency Program

Dr. Harris with former Chief Resident Sara Horstmann

  Dr. Harris with former Chief Resident Sara Horstmann

J. Peter Harris, M.D., always left his door open for his pediatric residents, and although his time at the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) has come to a close, his professional and personal influence continues on in the hundreds of pediatricians he impacted.

“From the outside it was clear he was a very special human being, a great physician, and a leader,” said Elizabeth R. McAnarney, M.D., former pediatrician-in-chief of Golisano Children’s Hospital and chair emerita of URMC’s Department of Pediatrics. McAnarney was chair for most of the 13 years Harris was director of the Pediatric Residency program. He retired this year, after starting his time at the University of Rochester Medical Center as a volunteer in the Emergency Department 50 years ago.

While a biology major at Stanford University, Harris developed an interest in cardiology, particularly as it pertained to the heart of a child. He was intrigued by his experience of every pediatric heart being different from the last. “I started out working with adults, but found that there were more challenges, and potential, with children,” said Harris. “Every child was different and I loved it.”

The Rochester native returned home to attend medical school at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. He stayed here to complete his residency, where he ascended to become chief resident, under the guidance of Robert Haggerty, M.D., chair emeritus of URMC’s Department of Pediatrics. He then completed a fellowship in pediatric cardiology. In addition to being a pediatric residency director, Harris was a full-time pediatric cardiologist and associate chair for Education in the Department of Pediatrics.

Having learned a great deal from fellow colleagues, including James Manning, M.D., Chloe Alexson, M.D., Michael Bryson, M.D., and Elizabeth R. McAnarney, M.D., Harris not only wanted to teach his residents the biopsychosocial model, he wanted to emulate it in his teaching.

“He had an unusual ability to clarify complex pediatric cardiac principles with his students,” McAnarney said. “He is a real talent who is dedicated to children, deeply passionate, and a master teacher.”

He believes that it is a physician’s natural evolution to become an educator. “It is the inherent responsibility of anyone who graduates from medical school to be a teacher,” Harris said.

When comparing old educational models to those used today, Harris recognizes the change in the way expanding information is transmitted and misses the focus on “close teaching.” “I’m not sure it’s the same nurturing apprenticeship model it once was,” he said. It is evident, however, that he carried this model over in his own teaching style.

Rather than simple lectures, Harris would engage in interactive and experiential learning with his students. “Students can hear about it, but to see it is different,” he said.

Harris demonstrated this when he took Caren Gellin, M.D., former resident and current associate program director for the Pediatrics residency program, to the newborn nursery to demonstrate “how not to disturb a football,” otherwise known as a tightly swaddled infant. Harris taught Gellin how to properly warm her stethoscope for an accurate reading of a newborn’s heart beat – a difficult task to get just right.

“It is fun to engage trainees in learning and to try and teach them in a dynamic way,” Harris said. Students became accustomed to, and grateful for, his use of the Socratic method of teaching, a continuous form of inquiry and debate that would stimulate students’ critical thinking.

When a group of residents didn’t feel they were getting enough cardiology training Harris, without a second thought or expectations of anything in return, set aside his own time, once a week, for instruction.  “If I saw a need for teaching, that wasn’t being met and I could do it, then I’d do it,” he said.

“He goes out of his way to help you and doesn’t expect anything in return,” said Eric Biondi, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics. “He has been like a father to all of us as we’ve found our way and is a great role model for how to be a physician.”

Harris would often give his students what he called a ‘learning exam.’ “Dr. Harris would sit with us, individually, throughout the exam as we discussed each question,” said Gellin. “It didn’t matter if your answer was right or wrong, you learned as you went along – question by question.” Many of his former residents appreciated how Harris would challenge them to be better, guiding them in the right direction, but never spoon-feeding them the answer.

“I went into medicine to be the best doctor and teacher I could be,” said Harris.

Harris, unknowingly and humbly, helped students find their place within the institution. His managerial approach allowed them to take control of their education, making sure their program was driven by their ideas and needs as medical students. Students trusted him and never wondered where the ship was headed when he was helping to navigate it.

“In order to help them get the best education, it was important to have them involved in defining it,” Harris said.

Harris developed a house-staff committee of elected residents to enhance communication and define how to implement program changes in the least traumatic way. He made the committee of and for the residents, empowering them to be invested in their education. The group is one of the many changes in the residency program that will continue because of Harris’ commitment to his students.

“He is somebody that I’ve turned to several times for guidance and would always give his undivided attention, no matter what he was doing,” said Carolina Marcus, M.D., assistant professor of Pediatrics. “He truly cares about medical training and enjoys seeing residents learn and develop over time.”

While better preparing them for their careers in medicine, Harris was invested in making students “complete physicians” – making sure they were competent and caring, not only with their patients, but also for one another. Whether it was hosting resident interns at his home for welcome parties, having them over for picnics, or teaching a ‘life skills’ course, full of topics like mortgages and insurance, Harris showed he cared.

“His door was always open, both literally and figuratively,” said Gellin. “To go through residency training is hard enough, but to know that someone is behind you and there to work with you on solutions to problems as they came up makes it much easier.”

“He makes an effort to know what’s going on in both your professional and personal life,” said Dana Work, D.O., fellow in Pediatric Nephrology. “He remains concerned about residents even when he has completed training.”

“The residents made my life fun and fulfilled on a daily basis,” Harris said. “It was a pleasure teaching.”

Harris’ time at the University of Rochester Medical Center had a great impact on not only his residents, but colleagues as well. “Your life is better off knowing him, whether it’s for five minutes or, in my case, more than a decade,” said Brooke Steinbronn, Harris’ former assistant residency program administrator and long-time friend of 12 years.

When asked how he would like to be remembered, Harris simply stated, “If they can say I was a good doctor and a good teacher, I will be more than satisfied.” With a nickname of ‘Papa Harris’ and a room dedicated by residents in his honor, one can bet his residents, and colleagues, will be saying a lot more.