New dean Dr. Daniel Wilson brings passion and experience to UF College of Medicine-Jacksonville

Published: March 8, 2012
Daniel R. Wilson, MD, PhD Daniel R. Wilson, MD, PhD

When your dad’s the doctor—the doctor in a small Iowa town—you’re going to get your share of exposure to medicine.

That’s even if you don’t trail your father around on house calls, which Daniel Wilson, MD, PhD, did regularly.

Wilson remembers when one of the local police officers who moonlighted as a tree surgeon came to the house after a chainsaw mishap. The man knocked on the door with one hand, trying to pin the other on his thigh hard enough to stop the blood from gushing everywhere. It didn’t work.

"Vi," the man said to Wilson’s mother Viola, "is Doc here?"

He wasn’t, but where he got hurt was closer to the house than the office and, well, since it was around lunchtime he figured Doc might be home.

"Things like that happened all the time—all the time," Wilson said.

It was the start of a passion for medicine that has taken Wilson to the newest challenge in his medical career: vice president of the University of Florida Health Science Center-Jacksonville and dean of the UF College of Medicine-Jacksonville.

Wilson started his new role on Feb. 1, coming from Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., where he was chair of the department of psychiatry for the past 12 years.

Wilson said the dynamics of growing up in a big family—he’s the seventh of eight kids—in a town of 1,500 helped breed an interest in how people interacted, which led him to psychiatry.

"I always enjoyed trying to figure out what was going on in my family as well as what was going on in my hometown," Wilson said.

Wilson is getting acclimated on campus, although climate itself isn’t an issue, since it was 6 degrees when the moving van showed up in Nebraska earlier this year.

He says he wants to continue to push research and "wave the University of Florida flag" a little more in the community, touting the academic health center as a place everyone would want to seek care.

His past positions include being on the faculty at Harvard Medical School and serving as medical director for Ohio’s nine mental hospitals with Integrated Health System. However, it’s an experience in Iowa some 30 years ago that Wilson said he still draws back on today.

A Baptism by Fire

Wilson was 20, preparing to head back to Yale for the fall and continue pursuit of his anthropology degree.

His father Charles died and, being the only family member at a stage of his life where he could take time off, Wilson stayed home to be executor of the estate.

He began the process of transferring his father’s medical practice to another physician, wading knee-deep into weeds of financial and legal matters.

"That was a baptism by fire, and quite an interesting initial foray into health care administration at age 20," Wilson said.

A local attorney and friend of the family helped guide Wilson through the process. He taught Wilson that, as much as you might want to, you cannot fight every single fight. You must select the important areas and focus on them if you want to get anything done.

Now that Wilson is leading the Jacksonville campus with nearly 400 faculty spread over a 10-city-block campus and clinics throughout North Florida, the need to focus is even clearer.

"I have tremendous confidence in his wisdom and his skills to navigate us through these tough years ahead," said Guy Benrubi, MD, senior associate dean for clinical affairs and chair of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Wilson said one of his priorities is to help the community understand the quality of physicians and care that is available throughout UF&Shands Jacksonville.

"I think there is high regard in the community for what Shands and the university are doing, but I think it is perceived more as a safety net hospital than appreciated for the full range of what’s going on here," Wilson said.

Wilson points to the UF Proton Therapy Institute as a prime example. Not only is it leading-edge technology that patients travel hundreds, some thousands, of miles for, but every patient who is treated there is part of a massive clinical trial, Wilson said.

That blend of clinical and research activity is what helps get academic medical centers on the map and should be replicated in other areas, Wilson said.

Nowhere to go but up

After earning his medical degree from the University of Iowa, Wilson completed his residency as a joint appointee of Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts General and McLean Hospitals.

Wilson stayed on faculty at Harvard for seven years and, when he decided to leave, he had an opportunity to follow a mentor to Stanford. Instead, Wilson chose to go to the University of Cincinnati and become medical director of the Lewis Center of the Ohio Department of Mental Health—one of the most notoriously troubled hospitals in the country at the time.

"My friends thought I had lost my mind," Wilson said.

But Wilson said he didn’t question it. The move fit what he was looking for in a change and offered challenges different from Harvard and Stanford.

And there was nowhere to go but up.

Wilson worked in parallel with seven CEOs in seven years there, and estimates he spent about half of the time as the defacto CEO himself.

While he was there, he was part of a yearlong program in health care leadership where he and others learned from top hospital and health care executives about the business and administration of medicine. He and others got the ship righted at Lewis, which Wilson says was a key development in his career growth.

"Going from a very fancy, well-funded place like Harvard Medical School to a public mental health sector that was a mess in Ohio and getting that turned around with teamwork was a terrific turning point," Wilson said.

Wilson’s hospital experience is a plus for Shands Jacksonville President and CEO Jim Burkhart, who said he hopes to have a solid working relationship with Wilson, as he did with previous dean Robert Nuss, MD. Burkhart said Wilson brings a tremendous amount of experience in a variety of roles that will help as the college and hospital try to move forward together.

"I really see this as a partnership and I think Dr. Wilson does, too," Burkhart said. "I see us really speaking as one voice, with one set of overarching goals to accomplish here."

After leaving Ohio, Wilson built the psychiatry department at Creighton before being recruited to Jacksonville. He said he was drawn to the position by the quality of faculty, staff and administrators on campus.

"There is a sense of mission, both academic and service, that is very impressive," Wilson said. "It speaks to how special many people feel about the work they’re doing here, despite the challenges that exist."

After his year off attending to his father’s estate, Wilson finished his undergraduate degree in anthropology from Yale. He also earned a PhD in biological anthropology from Queens’ College, Cambridge University in England.

Wilson’s daughter Victoria is now at college in the United Kingdom herself, studying English and history at the University of St. Andrews. Wilson lives in Mandarin with his wife Sandra and their two Bichon Frises, Monty and Lucy.

He’s continued to build on his career, while keeping the same passion and interest for medicine he learned by watching his father.

And, hopefully, he won’t have any more patients with chainsaw injuries knocking on his front door.

Daniel R. Wilson, MD, PhD

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