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Donald W. Seldin, MD

January 1, 1921 - April 25, 2018

Dr. Donald W. Seldin started building a Dallas medical school from scratch in 1951.

At the time, he was the only full-time medical professor at the fledgling Southwestern Medical School housed in a collection of decaying Army barracks just north of downtown Dallas. It had lost its accreditation.

But in 35 years as chairman of the department of medicine, Seldin forged a number of promising students into core leaders of UT Southwestern Medical Center, becoming one of the most revered and influential medical leaders in Dallas history.

Seldin, the so-called "intellectual father" of UT Southwestern Medical Center, died Tuesday. He was 97.

"I think he ran the best department of internal medicine of any medical school in the last century," said John Fordtran, who Seldin recruited to the UTSW faculty and who would go on to serve as chair of the department of internal medicine at Baylor University Medical Center.

"He elevated medicine in Dallas more than any other physician, certainly in the last century," Fordtran said. "He was the most important figure in Dallas medicine. I don't think anyone will ever exceed that."

Seldin was born on Coney Island in New York, the son of a Romanian-born dentist who lost everything during the Great Depression. It was an improbable beginning for a man who would grow up to help prosecute a Nazi war criminal, orchestrate a medical school faculty and be a respected researcher and inspirational mentor.

Seldin attended public schools in Brooklyn, where he was on the high school track and basketball teams.

"I hung out with boys my age whose purpose in life was to get into fights with other gangs, especially rivals from Seagate Garden," Seldin said in a 2003 edition of Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings.

But Seldin set his future intellectual course at the New York Public Library, where he became an avid reader. He was 16 when he graduated from high school and entered Washington Square College, the Greenwich Village campus of New York University.

He wanted to become a poet or philosopher, but took courses in chemistry and biology his senior year, hoping to find a career in medicine.

Seldin worked his way through Yale Medical School as a research assistant. He graduated in December 1943.

He married Muriel Goldberg on April 1, 1943. Mrs. Seldin died in 1994.

After an internship and residency in New Haven, Seldin completed his military basic training in San Antonio, one month before World War II ended. He was assigned to the 98th General Hospital in Munich, where he was asked to testify at the trial of a Nazi physician accused of performing research that led to the deaths of 40 prisoners at the Dachau Concentration Camp.

A three-judge panel wanted Seldin's testimony to determine if the camp doctor had performed liver biopsies as research or treatment. Liver biopsies performed without consent would be considered murder.

The Nazi doctor — acting as his own attorney — cross-examined Seldin and quizzed him extensively about liver function, a medical reference book at his fingertips.

"I had no trouble answering his questions," Seldin recalled in 2003.

Unbeknownst to the Nazi doctor, Seldin had worked in the Yale laboratory where the co-author of the reference had done his research. After two or three days, "the court terminated the interrogation," Seldin said.

"They decided that this was not a procedure that was done remotely in the interest of patients," he said. "Forty patients dying following liver biopsy point to medical inhumanity, not medical therapy. He was convicted and appropriately sentenced."

After completing his military duty, Seldin became a medical instructor at Yale. He later accepted a position at the fledgling Dallas medical school, where he would establish a metabolic unit. He drove to Dallas, arriving with his wife and daughter on Jan. 8, 1951.

He stopped at a filling station at Maple and Oak Lawn avenues for directions. He followed the attendant's instructions, but found nothing.

"I came back and told the attendant that I had not seen a medical school, only shacks and garbage," Seldin said. "'That's it,' he said."

Four months after he arrived in Dallas, Charles Burnett, the doctor who'd recruited Seldin to a junior faculty position took a job in North Carolina, leaving Seldin as the department of medicine's only full-time faculty member, Fordtran said.

Shortly afterward, Seldin was made department chair.

Then, Dallas County announced plans to build a new Parkland Memorial Hospital, and a special session of the Texas Legislature agreed to fund a Dallas medical school.

Seldin, 31, started building a faculty, using a kind of professor farm system. He identified promising third-year students who worked in his laboratory and sent them after graduation to NIH programs, hoping they would return as faculty and researchers.

Many did, including Dr. Joseph L. Goldstein, who had an interest in molecular genetics. Goldstein trained at centers for genetics in Boston and Seattle before returning to UT Southwestern, where he teamed with Dr. Michael S. Brown to win a Nobel Prize in 1985. Their work in cholesterol metabolism led to the creation of statins, used to control LDL cholesterol.

Seldin retired in 1988, but remained active at the Dallas medical school. In 2014, Seldin Plaza, on the UT Southwestern campus, was named in his honor.

"He was a big deal in the medical community," Fordtran said. "There'll never be another one like him. There's not a one of them who don't look to him as a beacon in Dallas."

Dr. Seldin served as the second president of the American Society of Nephrology from 1967-1968.

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