T. Franklin Williams, Pioneer and National Leader of Geriatric Medicine, Dies

Nov. 27, 2011

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., Friday, Nov. 25, 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, N.Y., from 1968 to 1983 and as a professor of Medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. In those positions, he mentored physicians, directed research and educated the community on a more humane view of people as they aged.

“American medicine has lost a giant and modern geriatric medicine has lost its founder,” said John R. Burton, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Geriatric Education Center in Baltimore and a professor of Medicine. “Frank was known and loved by all. He led by example and was widely admired for his constant quest for new knowledge, his humility and integrity. His rich legacy in geriatrics will be long lasting through those many he mentored and those he touched in a clinical teaching session or research review.”

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, said Robert McCann, M.D., chief of Medicine at Highland Hospital in Rochester and acting chief of the geriatrics division at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

“He was always ahead of his time,” McCann said. “He created one of the first geriatric assessment clinics in the country. He was a champion of interdisciplinary care long before it became today’s popular term. He always cared about people. He was always interested in what people were thinking and how he could help them become better providers of medicine.”

Breaking the stereotypes of aging

Thomas Franklin Williams was born in Belmont, N.C. His father and three of his brothers were pharmacists. He 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.

With the passage of the Medicare and Medicaid programs in 1965, Dr. Williams responded to an invitation by the federal government to organize an interdisciplinary program of services for older Americans previously uninsured. The plan he devised for the University of North Carolina was one of eight that were initially approved and funded.

In 1968, Dr. Williams was named medical director of Monroe Community Hospital in Rochester, N.Y., and also professor of Medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. He was 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.

One of his early studies, for example, found that a significant percentage of people in nursing homes should have remained at home and in the community, said Paul Katz, M.D., a former medical director of Monroe Community Hospital.

“He always was asking questions,” said Katz, now professor of Medicine at the University of Toronto and vice president of medical services at Baycrest Geriatric Health Centre. “If someone said all old people lose kidney function, he would ask how we know that. Where are the facts? Why can’t this person be cared for at home? He would push people to think beyond conventional wisdom. Without people like him, geriatrics would not be where it is today as a recognized specialty that is contributing significantly to improving the care of older adults. He had a major hand in building the credibility of the field because of his determination to apply scientific rigor to the field.”

Mary Tinetti, M.D., 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.

Teaching and riding his bike

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.

“Frank Williams was a giant in the field, but as a resident I didn't know that,” said Rosanne Leipzig, M.D., 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.”

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 and served for three years as a member of the Institute Council. 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 received numerous awards, including:  the Edward Henderson Award of the American Geriatrics Society; the Freeman and Kent Awards of the Gerontological Society of America; the Distinguished Service Medal of the U.S. Public Health Service; and, together with Robert Butler, M.D., the Institute of Medicine Gustav Lienhard Award of the National Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Williams is survived by his wife of almost 60 years, the former Catharine Carter Catlett. They were married Dec. 15, 1951. 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.

A celebration of the life of Dr. Williams will be held at 2 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 10, at St. Luke and St. Simon Cyrene Episcopal Church, 17 South Fitzhugh St., Rochester.

Contributions in his memory can be made to the church or to the T. Franklin Williams Foundation at Monroe Community Hospital, 435 East Henrietta Road, Rochester, N.Y. 14620.