Southwestern Medical Foundation recently sat down with Peter O’Donnell (shown above with his wife, Edith) and invited him to share his memories and talk about the future.
SWMF: You were good friends with Philip O’Bryan “P. O’B.” Montgomery. What can you tell us about him?
O’DONNELL: I watched my friend Phil Montgomery devote half a century to serving UT Southwestern. He was an educator, a researcher and an associate dean….For many people in the community, he was an unpaid consultant who referred them to experts at the medical center for their health problems. P. O’B. was the reason I got interested in UT Southwestern. Early on, he asked me to support a research project: the UV flying spot microscope. From there I was hooked. I remember in 1980, P. O’B. told me: “Goldstein and Brown will win the Nobel Prize.” In 1985, they did. In 1988, he said: “Gilman will win it.” He had an eye for talent.
One day, I picked him up and we were driving along on Inwood Road, by where the North Campus is today, and he looked at me and said, “We’ll need this land one day.”
SWMF: What remarkable insight.
O’DONNELL: I have thought about this a lot. When recruiting talent – dollars, space and colleagues are all critical. But if you don't have the space, you're in trouble. Solving that is the number one problem. We would have been landlocked like so many other medical schools. We are able to recruit and grow today because we’ve got the land.
SWMF: Anything you can share about Don Seldin?
O’DONNELL: It's impossible to overestimate the impact he's had here. Seldin took on Goldstein and Brown and mentored them. Seldin spotted Al Gilman. I asked Al one time how he'd gotten to UT Southwestern. Al was at Case Western. He told me, “Dr. Seldin came to see me, and in 45 minutes he blew me away.” Seldin is an outstanding presenter.
Having that keen eye for talent has been the difference maker. Goldstein and Brown spotted Scott Grundy when I was determined to put the study of human nutrition on scientific foundation at the school. It was a bit of an uphill battle, beginning a Center for Human Nutrition, but we got it done.
SWMF: It’s interesting that people needed convincing.
O’DONNELL: I ran across a saying a long time ago that I never forgot: “Obstacles are what you see when you take your eye off the goal.” I resolved to never take my eye off the goal. I've had a long interest in nutrition and systems biology, as well as in neuroscience and the brain. If you are convinced of it, you put your money into it.
SWMF: Brown and Goldstein?
O’DONNELL: They were exceptionally important during this period, no question. But I think what’s so marvelous is that they continue to do important work and are incredibly valuable to the school. That’s our roots, and we’re still getting the benefit. I asked Joe Goldstein to join the Board of Cooper Aerobics Center. He is quiet, but people really listen when he speaks. He gets calls from all over the world because what he and Mike Brown are doing continues beyond their original work. They're doing tremendous things.
SWMF: What do you see going forward?
O’DONNELL: I believe there is a strong need to mentor young MDs who can be trained to be clinicians. There is a human component that shouldn't be left behind as we advance technologically. An outstanding doctor and a good friend at the school embodies this idea, Dr. Gene Frenkel. I’d start with oncology and roll it out through all the departments. My interest extends to both physicians and nurses.
SWMF: Do you see your role over the years through the lens of a businessperson?
O’DONNELL: I’m not a businessperson; I’m an investor. But in the case of the medical school, the return on investment is not measured in profits but in enduring and positive leadership.
SWMF: On behalf of the Foundation and the medical school, we thank you and Edith for your tremendous vision, tenacity and extraordinary generosity.
RELATED STORY: UT Southwestern Establishes Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute