Founding Faculty: Rubin Bressler, Physician-Scientist and Pioneer in Academic Medicine, 1928-2009

UA College of Medicine professor emeritus helped establish the College while mentoring students, caring for patients and publishing groundbreaking research

Rubin Bressler, MD, distinguished professor emeritus with the Department of Medicine at The University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson, passed away May 3 in Tucson. Dr. Bressler was 80.

During his 38-year career at the UA College of Medicine, he was devoted to helping establish the College as a top-notch research and educational program. He served as head of both basic science and clinical departments at the College and helped establish several of the College’s Centers of Excellence, including the Sarver Heart Center. He was mentor and teacher to hundreds of medical students; provided care to thousands of patients; and published groundbreaking research. His long and distinguished career truly embodied the College’s mission of education, research and patient care.

Dr. Bressler was born in Bronx, New York on Dec. 13, 1928. After graduating from the Bronx High School of Science, he attended the City College of New York for two years, then transferred to McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, where he received his bachelor of science degree in 1951. He received his medical degree from Duke University in Durham, N.C., in 1957.

He completed his internship in medicine at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., in 1958. He was a junior assistant resident in medicine at Yale from 1958 to 1959 and a senior assistant resident in medicine at Duke from 1959 to 1960. After completing a fellowship in biochemistry in 1961 at Duke, he joined the Duke faculty and rose to a full professor in three years.

In 1964, at age 35, he was elected a member of the American Society of Clinical Investigation (ASCI) – also known as the “Young Turks” – one of the nation’s oldest and most respected medical honor societies. Only a few physician-scientists, who translate findings in the laboratory to the advancement of clinical practice, are inducted each year into this exclusive group of outstanding biomedical investigators who must be under age 45 at the time of their election. He remained an ASCI member for the rest of his life.

At Duke he rose to professor of medicine and pharmacology and, because he was such an outstanding researcher and clinician, he was chosen to head the Division of Clinical Pharmacology in the Department of Medicine and the Division of Pharmacology in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology.

Dr. Bressler left Duke in 1970 to become a “pioneer” in the “Wild West” at the then-three-year old UA College of Medicine in Tucson. Joining the UA faculty as professor of pharmacology and medicine, he established the College’s Department of Pharmacology, serving as its head from 1970 to 1976. He also was head of the Division of Clinical Pharmacology in the Department of Medicine.

Because of his investigative abilities and clinical expertise, he was asked to head the Department of Medicine in 1976 and he remained head for 16 years, until 1992, during which time the Department of Medicine became one of the best in the United States, highly sought after for clinical training following medical school. He also held the Robert S. and Irene P. Flinn Endowed Chair of Medicine from 1982 to 1992.

While serving as head of the College’s pharmacology and medicine departments and clinical pharmacology division, Dr. Bressler recruited, helped or promoted many faculty members who became established investigators and administrators themselves, contributing to the success of the Department of Pharmacology, Arizona Cancer Center and Sarver Heart Center. He recognized the importance of assisting junior UA faculty, who he saw as having the potential to become tomorrow’s investigators.

Dr. Bressler always celebrated the contributions and accomplishments of others and encouraged interaction between medical students and world-renowned researchers, which paid dividends in successful National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants and better jobs for students when their training was complete. He created a pharmacology research symposium in honor of the former head of Harvard University’s Department of Pharmacology, Otto Krayer, MD, who was a winter visiting professor in pharmacology at the UA from 1972 to 1980. The symposium, composed of Dr. Krayer’s former students, including Nobel laureates and NIH luminaries, inspired the faculty and raised the stature of the UA.

As a clinician, Dr. Bressler was both a pharmacologist and a specialist in internal medicine, with particular expertise in the treatment of diabetes and hypertension. He also had extensive experience in medical, physical, psychological and psychiatric assessment and was a medical consultant for the UA Disability Assessment Research Clinic (DARC), part of the Arizona Arthritis Center. (DARC conducts comprehensive, integrated psycho/social, neuropsychological, medical and vocational assessments to assist numerous public, private, state and federal programs in their work with individuals with medical, physical, mental, psychological, neuropsychological and psychiatric disabilities. DARC provides services in Tucson, Phoenix, Yuma, Safford, Bisbee, Douglas, Nogales, Sierra Vista and other Arizona cities.) Dr. Bressler provided medical evaluations for DARC clients as well as medical consultation for DARC staff. He also was vice president of The University Physicians, Inc. (now University Physicians Healthcare), from 1988 to 1992 and president of University Famli-Care from 1989 to 1992.

Although he retired from teaching as professor emeritus in 2000, Dr. Bressler still taught medical students on occasion and continued his research, studying heart failure and organizing a proof-of-principle trial at the UA to test his hypothesis of a potential treatment for diastolic dysfunction and heart failure.

One of the accomplishments in basic science research that he was proud of was his early work with Salih J. Wakil, PhD, on the stepwise synthesis of fatty acids that led him to life-long investigations into the role of carnitine (a compound found in nearly all of the body’s cells that plays a critical role in energy production) in intermediary metabolism. His constant search for knowledge led to expertise in the areas of diabetes, birth control drugs and the pharmacology of antipsychotic and antidepressant drugs, while his desire to follow ideas where they might lead and seek practical applications led to publication of basic science studies in the potential use of pharmacologic agents to treat cancer.

As a clinical investigator, he published more than 300 papers (including 10 journal articles since becoming professor emeritus in 2000). He also wrote 10 books, including Geriatric Pharmacology, one of the most sought-after textbooks in the field.

Dr. Bressler served on the editorial boards of 15 medical journals and publications, including 30 years as executive editor of the journal, Life Sciences; more than 20 years on the editorial boards of Primary Care Medicine Drug Alerts, Journal of the American Geriatrics Society and Advances in Therapy; and nearly 20 years as scientific adviser for the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry and editorial adviser of Biological Therapies in Psychiatry Newsletter. He also served on the editorial board for the AARP Prescription Drug Handbook from 1988 to 2000.

Throughout his career, Dr. Bressler received numerous awards and honors, including an Alpha Omega Alpha (the only national medical honor society) Award and a Borden Research Award (for outstanding research in medicine) in 1957 at Duke Medical School, an American Cancer Society Research Fellowship (1960-61) and a Burroughs Wellcome Clinical Pharmacology Award (1967-70). He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to support his research (1969-70) and was selected four times for a Burroughs Wellcome William N. Creasy Visiting Professorship of Clinical Pharmacology (established during the 1975-76 academic year to stimulate interest in the discipline and support for its development in the nation’s medical schools), in 1976, 1978, 1979 and 1982. He served on the UA Promotion and Tenure Advisory Board from 1984 to 1986. In 1985, he chaired the safety monitoring committee for the Electrophysiologic Study vs. Electrocardiographic Monitoring (ESVEM) Trial, a study of electrophysiologic study and electrocardiographic Holter monitoring in predicting the effectiveness of antiarrhythmic drugs. For his “meritorious efforts to advance science or its applications,” he was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 1990. He was Alpha Omega Alpha counselor for the UA College of Medicine from 1993 to 2000. He was a fellow of the American College of Physicians for more than 30 years, since 1973.

In 2007, he was presented with a Professional Achievement Award for Extraordinary Faculty by the UA Alumni Association and Sarver Heart Center in recognition for his life-long dedication to the practice of academic medicine. In 1975, he received the Duke Medical Alumni Association Distinguished Alumnus Award, and he was invited to address his medical school class at its 50th reunion at Duke in 2007.

He was a member of many professional societies and associations, including the:

  • American Society for Clinical Investigation (more than 40 years)
  • American Society of Biological Chemists (34 years)
  • American Society of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (34 years)
  • Association of American Physicians (34 years, including 20 years on the executive committee of the division of clinical pharmacology)
  • American Federation for Clinical Research (31 years)
  • American Medical Association (more than 30 years, including service on the AMA Diagnostic and Therapeutic Technology Assessment Panel from 1982 to 2000)
  • American College of Physicians (more than 20 years), where he also served as chairman of the Clinical Pharmacology MKSAP (Medical Knowledge Self-Assessment Program) from 1984 to 1986
  • American Federation for Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics (19 years)
  • Association of Professors of Medicine (15 years)

He was a member of the NIH Pharmacology-Toxicology Study Section from 1967 to 1971, and the NIH Metabolism Study Section from 1972 to 1976. He was a member of the National Research Council Clinical Science Panel from 1979 to 1986.

Although not a UA alumnus, he was a Wildcat throughout his career at the UA College of Medicine, proudly holding his basketball tickets since the days when it was easy to get season tickets.

While his career was in science and medicine, his interests were varied. He majored in English in college and had a passion for poetry. He enjoyed and collected Native American art, wine, stamps, coins and fine china.

He is survived by Paula, his wife of nearly 54 years (June 26, 1955), who he met during medical school, where she urged him to continue his medical studies instead of leaving to pursue research; three children: Stephen (Eve), Peter (Patty), and Karen (Bryan Stevens); and eight grandchildren: Rachel, Alex, Eric, Paige, Reann, Grace, Emily Rose Rose (born the day he died; her middle name begins with “R” in memory of Rubin) and Dani Duffy.