Willerson, James Thornton (1939–2020)

By: Carlos R. Hamilton, Jr.

Type: Biography

Published: May 12, 2021

Updated: May 12, 2021

James Thornton Willerson, honored physician, medical educator, and innovative cardiovascular researcher, was born in Lampasas, Texas, on November 16, 1939, into the medical family of William Darrell Willerson, a general practice physician and graduate of Baylor College of Medicine, and Eleanor Thornton (Townsend) Willerson, an anesthesiologist and graduate of Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. His family, including his brother, Darrell Willerson, Jr. (who became an ophthalmologist in San Antonio), and sister, Bettie Willerson Driver (who became an attorney in Atlanta, Georgia), soon moved to San Antonio. From 1947 to 1953 he attended San Antonio Academy and then entered the Texas Military Institute (TMI) in San Antonio. At TMI he was captain of the varsity swimming team and won five first places in the state swimming meet his senior year. He was the battalion commander, senior class president, and editor of the school newspaper. He graduated in 1957.

From 1957 to 1961 Willerson attended the University of Texas at Austin on a four-year swimming scholarship and earned a varsity letter his last three years. He received an academic award for the student athlete with the highest scholastic average in 1961. He was a member of Phi Gamma Delta social fraternity, the Texas Cowboys, and Phi Beta Kappa.

In 1961 he entered Baylor College of Medicine where he was elected to Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Society and graduated in 1965 with high honors. From 1965 to 1967 he was a medical intern/resident at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. In 1967 he became a clinical associate at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and in 1969 he returned to Massachusetts General Hospital as a research and clinical fellow in the cardiac unit of the Department of Medicine. In 1972 he accepted the position of assistant professor of medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas.

By 1976 he had become chief of cardiology at Parkland Memorial Hospital and professor of medicine at Southwestern Medical School (a component of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, at that time known as University of Texas Health Science Center at Dallas). In 1977 he became the director of Southwestern Medical School’s Cardiology Division. He was the principal investigator of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)-sponsored Ischemic Heart Disease Program (1976–94) and co-director of the American Heart Association-sponsored Molecular Biology and Cardiology Research Center (1986–89). He moved from Dallas in 1989 to become chairman of the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston.

He assumed the positions of chief of medical services at the University of Texas (UT) teaching hospitals in Houston—Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center and Lyndon B. Johnson General Hospital. In 1992 he began a ten-year program directorship of the NIH-sponsored Clinical Research Center at Memorial Hermann and the UT Medical School. In addition to these clinical and research efforts, he began, in 1993, an eleven-year editorship of Circulation, a leading peer-reviewed journal of cardiovascular disease.

In 1989 Willerson also became director of the Cardiology Research Program at the Texas Heart Institute in Houston and, with Dr. O. Howard Frazier in 1990, became co-director of the Cullen Cardiovascular Research Laboratories. In 1996 he became the John S. Dunn, Sr. Chair in Cardiology Research at the Texas Heart Institute.

In 2000 he was appointed interim president of the UT Health Science Center at Houston and the next year became the permanent president and the Alkek-Williams Distinguished Professor. He held these positions until 2008 when he was named president of the Texas Heart Institute. He held that position until becoming president emeritus in 2017.

Willerson achieved excellence in the breadth of his professional experience, including patient care, training students and physicians at every level of their careers, and especially in his research activities. At the end of his life he had eight articles for submission for publication to add to his 1,053 peer-reviewed articles and contributions to cardiology textbooks in the medical literature.

He was a principal author or editor of twenty-six textbooks, was assigned fifteen patents by the U.S. Patent Office, and was a founder or co-founder of five institutes or biotechnology companies, including the Institute of Molecular Medicine (1989); Encysive Pharmaceuticals (originally Texas Biotechnology Corporation, 1991); Volcano, Inc. (2001); LoneStar Heart (2010); and YAP Pharmaceuticals (2018). Of the extraordinary accomplishments of his long career in patient care, medical education, and clinical research, he was most proud of the establishment of the Brown Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Diseases. This stand-alone research institute that is imbedded in the McGovern Medical School and is a vital component of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston was the result of Willerson’s passion for molecular medicine and his ability to share this commitment with faculty members, government officials, and philanthropists. The idea for this institute was planted when he began his tenure in Houston in 1989, and, with the recruitment of world-class scientists and more than $236 million of community support, the Institute of Molecular Medicine occupied the new Fayez S. Sarofim Research Building on the U.T. Health Science Center campus in 2006.

Willerson’s publications began with clinical observations and reports while he was a medical student and continued through his postgraduate career with more than thirty publications before continuing his work at the NIH. Reports of his clinical observations and basic research related to cardiac metabolism and physiology continued throughout his career. During his tenure at UT Southwestern, he published extensively on the use of radioisotopes in cardiac imaging and their use in diagnosing and predicting the extent of myocardial infarction.

Other areas of his research interests included the role of inflammation in the rupture of intra-arterial plaques causing acute coronary syndromes. Investigation of intravascular imaging and thermography led to new concepts of the pathogenesis of ischemic cardiovascular disease. He led early attempts to use stem cells in the treatment of congestive heart failure resulting from ischemic heart disease. Another area of interest was the search for genomic variations affecting the incidence and progress of cardiac atherosclerotic disease.

Willerson was a diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine and in the sub-specialty of cardiovascular disease and was a fellow the Council of Clinical Cardiology of the American Heart Association and of the American College of Cardiology. He was a member of numerous medical and academic organizations including: International Study Group for Research in Cardiac Metabolism, the Paul Dudley White Cardiac Society, the American Physiological Society, American Society for Clinical Investigation, Association of University Cardiologists, Association of American Physicians, and the International Academy of Cardiovascular Sciences.

He was an invited visiting professor on more than 300 occasions at hospitals and universities throughout the United States and around the world. He served on the editorial boards of forty-four medical publications, including The American Journal of Cardiology, The American Journal of Medicine, Journal of the American College of Cardiology, The Journal of Clinical Investigation, The New England Journal of Medicine, and served as editor-in-chief of the journal Circulation for eleven years.

Willerson received numerous national and international honors from various academic and medical institutions, and those most meaningful to him were recognitions of his teaching excellence by students and house officers in each of his affiliations and being named a distinguished alumnus of the University of Texas at Austin and Baylor College of Medicine, Houston. Many institutions have created named professorships, lectureships, and scholarships in his honor.

James Thornton Willerson married Nancy Beamer in 1967. They divorced in 2010. They had two daughters—Sara Willerson and Amy Willerson, also a physician. Willerson died in Houston on September 16, 2020, from complications of gastroesophageal carcinoma. His memorial service was conducted at St. John the Divine Episcopal Church by his undergraduate Phi Gamma Delta fraternity friend from the University of Texas, the Reverend Laurens Hall. Willerson was buried in Glenwood Cemetery in Houston.

Darla Brown, “In memoriam:  James T. Willerson, MD,” Office of Communications, McGovern Medical School, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (https://med.uth.edu/blog/2020/09/24/in-memoriam-james-t-willerson-md/), accessed May 6, 2021. Houston Chronicle, September 20, 2020. “In Memoriam James T. Willerson, MD,” Texas Heart Institute (https://www.texasheart.org/in-memoriam-james-t-willerson-md/), accessed May 6, 2021. James T. Willerson, MD, Curriculum Vitae, Texas Heart Institute and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

  • Education
  • Educators
  • Medical
  • Health and Medicine
  • Physicians and Surgeons
  • Cardiologists
  • Science
  • Scientists and Researchers
  • Writers, Authors, Publications, and Literature
  • Academics
  • Literature
  • Journals and Publications
  • Textbook and Educational Writers
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Texas in the 21st Century
  • East Texas
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • Houston
  • 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.

Carlos R. Hamilton, Jr., “Willerson, James Thornton,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 16, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/willerson-james-thornton.

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May 12, 2021
May 12, 2021

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