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Portrait unveiling honors three medical pioneers

May. 18, 2017, 8:40 AM

Vanderbilt University School of Medicine (VUSM) honored three pioneers for their historic contributions to education, science and medicine during a formal portrait unveiling at Langford Auditorium this week. The event, hosted by the Office of Diversity Affairs, was held as part of Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s (VUMC) commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., far left, and André Churchwell, M.D., show the portrait of Michael Rodriguez, M.D., to his family, left to right — son Jonas Rodriguez, widow Missy Brower, daughter-in-law Crockett Rodriguez, and grandchildren Richard Michael Rodriguez II and Eleanor Rodriguez. (Photo by Anne Rayner)

Friends and family of R. Michael Rodriguez, M.D., Sarah Sell, M.D., and Vivien Thomas, LLD, gathered to celebrate these visionaries and to view the portraits for the first time.

Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., President and CEO of VUMC and Dean of VUSM, opened the event by welcoming guests before turning the program over to André Churchwell, M.D., the Levi Watkins Jr. M.D. Professor, professor of Medicine, Biomedical Engineering and Radiology and Radiological Sciences, Senior Associate Dean for Diversity Affairs, and VUMC’s Chief Diversity Officer.

“We have honored our heroes for years, and as such, have created a magnificent pantheon,” Churchwell said. “Our pantheon is the places and lecture halls where portraits of our heroes and heroines reside that will honor them for eternity. Upon assuming the role of Chief Diversity Officer last year, I met with Dean Balser, and we determined it was time to populate our halls with individuals who are representative of groups who have not been previously recognized.

“Our heritage of VUMC’s acknowledgement of greatness has to recognize diverse leaders representative of the people we serve — such as women, Hispanics, African-Americans, and other diverse groups. Today is the start of this process.”

Rodriguez, an associate professor of Medicine, was remembered for being a gifted educator who was highly regarded by his colleagues. Rodriguez was a pulmonologist who completed his medical training at Vanderbilt. He was the recipient of numerous VUSM teaching awards throughout his career and held a patent for an invention, a pleural catheter. Rodriguez was director of Minority Affairs from 1998-2002 and served on the admission committee and academic programs committee until his death in 2005.

“It was Mike’s role as the dean of Minority Affairs that set the stage for the great growth in diversity in the Medical School, and Dr. George Hill and I are grateful to be the beneficiaries of his efforts,” Churchwell said.

Rodriquez’ widow, Missy Brower, son Jonas Rodriguez and his family attended the event.

“We’re extremely honored to have my dad recognized in this way,” said Jonas Rodriguez. “This was my dad’s life’s work and his passion, and we saw it on a daily basis. I remember seeing him reading applications for the medical school and spending a lot of hours on his physical diagnosis class, putting together presentations to teach the students. He derived a lot of the joy from his work here.”

Churchwell, far left, shows the portrait of Sarah Sell, M.D., to her family, from left, Ian Hamilton, Jean Dowdy, Patrick Hamilton, Charlie Sell (her son), Beth Sell, Allison Cunningham, Bryanne Hamilton and Bill Hamilton. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Sell, a professor of Pediatrics, was a key player in the development of the childhood vaccine to protect against Haemophilus influenza type b (Hib), the most common cause of bacterial meningitis in children under age 5. Her work led to the licensure of several conjugating Hib vaccines in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“These vaccines have been so effective that they have virtually eliminated this devastating disease in young children in the United States,” said Churchwell. “Dr. Sell donated her personal papers to the Eskind Library, and this collection is open to researchers.”

Sell graduated from Vanderbilt with a master’s degree in Microbiology in 1938. She then graduated from VUSM and completed pediatric residencies at Vanderbilt, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and Louisiana State University. Sell joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 1954 and remained until her retirement in 1978. She died in 2012 at age 99. Her son Charlie Sell and several members of his family attended the event.

“On behalf of myself and my family, we are deeply honored by the unveiling of the portrait of my mother in recognition of her many years of service to the University, which she loved,” Charlie Sell said.

“She dedicated her working life to advancing the medical frontiers of science and was deeply committed to Vanderbilt’s mission, and to improving the health of children in particular.”

Thomas, a surgical technician who assisted surgeon Alfred Blalock, M.D., both at Vanderbilt and at Johns Hopkins University, was a key contributor in pioneering the surgical procedure first used to successfully treat tetralogy of Fallot, commonly known as blue baby syndrome.

The surgical work Thomas performed alongside Blalock is often heralded for ushering in the modern era of cardiac surgery.

Churchwell and Balser, center, show the portrait of Vivien Thomas, LLD, to his family. From left are granddaughter Ursula Dijkhoffz, granddaughter Marcia Rasberry-Smith and great-granddaughters Maritza, Anisa and Bianca Dijkhoffz. (photo by Anne Rayner)

“After 30 years, Thomas was honored with the title of Instructor Emeritus in Surgery at The Johns Hopkins Medical School, and his portrait was commissioned and presented to The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions,” Churchwell said. “We thank Johns Hopkins for this replica of his Hopkins portrait. It is fitting that he should be returned and acknowledged at his home — Nashville, Tennessee.”

Thomas died in 1985 at age 75. His two granddaughters, Marcia Rasberry-Smith and Ursula Dijkhoffz, as well as his three great-granddaughters, Maritza, Anisa and Bianca Dijkhoffz, attended the portrait unveiling.

“We are especially proud of our grandfather today,” Ursula Dijkhoffz said. “He was always very humble. We would have never known, had he not written his book, about his feelings about things that transpired during his life, especially regarding racism. We’re thankful Vanderbilt has honored his journey, and that they recognize and acknowledge his challenges and accomplishments by placing his portrait on the wall with other persons of note.”

The new portraits will hang alongside portraits of other institutional leaders in Room 208 of Light Hall.

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