Seldin, Donald Wayne (1920–2018)

By: Russell Stites

Type: Biography

Published: March 22, 2021

Updated: March 22, 2021


Donald W. Seldin, physician and nephrologist (kidney specialist) who was hailed as the intellectual father of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, was born on October 24, 1920, in Coney Island, New York, to Abraham and Laura (Ueberal) Seldin. He had one sibling, a younger sister named Marion. Seldin’s father, Abraham Seldin, a Jewish immigrant from Bessarabia in Eastern Europe, was hit hard by the stock market crash of 1929, and during the Great Depression his income from his dentistry practice was significantly disrupted. Seldin’s parents separated during the 1930s, and, embittered by his financial setbacks, his father moved out of the family home. Abraham Seldin pushed his son to go to business school rather than pursue an academic or professional career and thereby avoid similar financial hardships and was strongly critical of his son’s choice to go into medicine.

Throughout junior high and high school, Donald Seldin worked numerous jobs to help support the family. He attended James Madison High School in Brooklyn, where he graduated at the age of sixteen in 1936. He participated in the track and basketball teams at his school and was awarded a scholarship to attend Washington Square College, part of New York University. He initially studied literature and hoped to go into either poetry or philosophy. Concerned about being able to find employment with such a degree, he changed his focus to medicine in his last year at the college, from which he graduated in 1940. He applied to and was accepted at the Yale School of Medicine, which he also attended on a scholarship. He studied metabolic medicine under John Peters, who cultivated his interest in nephrology. Seldin earned his medical degree in December 1943. While he was at Washington Square College, he began dating fellow student Muriel Goldburg. They married on April 1, 1943.

Seldin continued his graduate studies at Yale as part of a “9-9-9 program”—an accelerated, wartime training program for military physicians that involved a nine-month internship and two nine-month residency periods. He previously enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942 and, after finishing his residency at New Haven Hospital, completed basic training in San Antonio, Texas, in 1946. As part of the U.S. Army Medical Corps, he was sent to the 98th General Hospital in Munich, Germany. By then World War II had already ended, and many medical officers were returning to the United States. Due to one such departure, the young Seldin was quickly made chief of medical service at the hospital. There, he held the rank of captain.

In December 1947 Seldin, being one of the few American medical officers still left in Europe at the time, was called as an expert witness in the trial of a Nazi physician, Rudolf Adalbert Brachtel. Brachtel was accused of causing the deaths of inmates at Dachau by performing unnecessary liver biopsies, but he maintained that these biopsies were conducted to treat an outbreak of hepatitis at the camp. Seldin testified that, in the United States at least, liver biopsies were not normally used to manage hepatitis. In cross-examination, Brachtel attacked Seldin’s credentials. Seldin was not an expert on liver treatment and could not definitively say whether Brachtel’s frequent biopsies were abnormal in the context of German medicine. Two days after Seldin’s testimony, Brachtel was acquitted. Three decades later, Seldin, influenced by his experience in Germany, served on the committee that developed the Belmont Report, which provided ethical guidelines for research involving human subjects. Later in life, Seldin repeatedly claimed that the Nazi doctor had been convicted.

After Seldin’s discharge from the U. S. Army in 1948, he returned to Yale to take up a teaching position, having been offered the job by Dr. Peters while he was in Munich. At Yale, he gained recognition for his research on kidney function and disease. Nephrology was not yet a distinct discipline. During his career, Seldin played a significant role in developing nephrology as a specialty. He was an early member of the International Society of Nephrology and was a founding member of the American Society of Nephrology, serving as its second president. At the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, he established the school’s world-class Division of Nephrology. For his contributions to nephrology, he won numerous honors, including the George M. Kober Medal from the Association of American Physicians. In 1994 the National Kidney Foundation created the Donald W. Seldin Award to recognize excellence in clinical nephrology.

Seldin did not stay at Yale long, in part because of the limited opportunity for advancement in a department filled with so many distinguished individuals. He accepted an offer by Dr. Chuck Burnett, the new chair of the Department of Internal Medicine at UT Southwestern, to head a metabolic unit at the fledgling medical school. He arrived in Dallas in January 1951, without having visited the campus first. The school, affiliated with Old Parkland Hospital, was based out of converted army barracks. The facilities were in extremely poor condition, and the school had limited resources. After Seldin and his wife had driven from New Haven to Dallas, Seldin was still anxious to see his new stomping grounds, so he drove to where he thought they should be and could not find the campus. He then pulled into a gas station on the corner of Maple and Oak Lawn avenues and asked the attendant for directions. The attendant nonchalantly pointed in the general direction of a railroad crossing. Seldin and his wife returned to that area and found nothing that he thought looked like a medical school. When Seldin returned to the gas station and stated that all he had found following his directions were shacks and a tumbledown redbrick building with garbage strewn across the entrance, the attendant smiled and told the disoriented yankee, “That’s it. That’s the medical school.”

The Department of Internal Medicine had only three full-time members, including Seldin. Soon he was the only one. In June, Burnett left UT Southwestern. The school continued to bleed personnel and stood to lose its accreditation from the American Medical Association. Seldin himself made plans to return to Yale. However, he changed his mind after funding was approved for a new building for the medical school and a new Parkland Hospital, which opened in 1954. Seldin stayed in Dallas and became the chair of the Department of Internal Medicine within a year of his arrival.

Seldin began making major changes in the department. With so few faculty members, the department was dependent on guest lecturers, whose self-selected topics were not coordinated to create a comprehensive curriculum. Seldin greatly reduced the number of lectures to prioritize clinical experience and research and ensured that lectures were primarily conducted by full-time faculty. Initially, he gave most lectures himself. Due to the school’s meager resources, he was dependent on current and former students to build up the school’s faculty. In the years after his appointment, the department was dominated by former students. He arranged for his students to study with luminaries in their specializations on the understanding that they would return and help grow the school. He was a talented instructor and developed strong, personal connections with his students. One of these students, Joseph Goldstein, returned to UT Southwestern to establish a genetics program. Goldstein and another UT Southwestern alum Michael Brown were awarded a Nobel Prize for their work in genetics in 1985. They were the first UT Southwestern faculty members to receive a Nobel Prize. By the time of Seldin’s death in 2018, a total of six Nobel Prizes had been awarded to members of the school’s faculty. UT Southwestern became a world-renowned medical school in large part thanks to Seldin’s efforts. He retired from his position in 1988, though he remained active in the school; he continued his practice of welcoming new classes of first-years into his nineties.

Seldin’s wife Muriel died of a cerebral hemorrhage on September 13, 1994. They had three children—Leslie Lynn Seldin, Donald Craig Seldin, and Donna Janis. In 1996 Seldin began a relationship with Ellen Taylor. She was a physician and first met Seldin when she was a student at UT Southwestern, from which she graduated in 1970. They married on May 4, 1998. Throughout his life, Seldin maintained broad intellectual interests, including art, literature, music, architecture, philosophy, political science, and, sometime after arriving in Texas, a “rabid” fandom of the Dallas Cowboys, whose games he attended in person for many years. He held six honorary degrees, including one from Yale. He served as president of seven academic societies. On April 25, 2018, Donald Wayne Seldin died of lymphoma. Michael S. Brown, his former student and Nobel Prize winner, said of his mentor, Donald Seldin: “Medicine has never seen and will never see his equal.”

Eugene Braunwald, “A Tribute to Donald W. Seldin,” Journal of Clinical Investigation 128 (August 2018). Raymond S. Greenberg, Donald Seldin: The Maestro of Medicine (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2020). Michael J. Mooney, “The Father of Dallas Medicine,” D Magazine, October 2013 (https://www.dmagazine.com/publications/d-magazine/2013/october/dr-donald-seldin-of-ut-southwestern-father-of-dallas-medicine/), accessed February 12, 2021. Ushma S. Neill, “A Conversation with Donald Seldin,” Journal of Clinical Investigation 122 (August 2012) (https://www.jci.org/articles/view/64563), accessed February 12, 2021. New York Times, May 1, 2018. Russell Rian, “Dr. Donald W. Seldin, ‘intellectual father’ of UT Southwestern, dies at 97,” UT Southwestern Medical Center Newsroom, April 25, 2018 (https://www.utsouthwestern.edu/newsroom/articles/year-2018/seldin.html), accessed February 12, 2021. Donald W. Seldin, “Donald Wayne Seldin, MD: A Conversation with the Editor,” Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings 16 (April 2003) (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1201009/), accessed February 12, 2021. Donald W. Seldin, Interview by Leon Fine and Robert Alpern, International Society of Nephrology Video Legacy Project, 1997. Ellen Taylor Seldin, “Ellen Taylor Seldin: A Conversation with the Editor,” Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings 16 (April 2003) (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1201010/), accessed February 12, 2021.

Categories:

  • Education
  • Medical Schools and Teaching Hospitals
  • Health and Medicine
  • Hospital, School, and Association Administrators
  • Hospitals, Clinics, and Medical Centers

Time Periods:

  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II

Places:

  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Russell Stites, “Seldin, Donald Wayne,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed December 05, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/seldin-donald-wayne.

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March 22, 2021
March 22, 2021

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