February 22, 2024

VUMC mourns loss of renowned pulmonary medicine physician-scientist John H. Newman

John H. Newman, MD, an acclaimed physician-scientist in Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Division of Allergy, Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine who made numerous contributions to the knowledge of pulmonary vascular disease, died on Tuesday, Feb. 20, after a several-month illness. He was 78.

John H. Newman, MD
John H. Newman, MD

John H. Newman, MD, professor of Medicine, emeritus, former Elsa S. Hanigan Professor of Pulmonary Medicine, and an acclaimed physician-scientist in Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Division of Allergy, Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine who made numerous contributions to the knowledge of pulmonary vascular disease, died on Tuesday, Feb. 20, after a several-month illness. He was 78.

Dr. Newman, along with his longtime colleague James Loyd, MD, discovered that mutations in the BMPR2 gene underlie most heritable pulmonary arterial hypertension and ushered in an entirely new way of thinking about the molecular etiology of pulmonary vascular disease.

“I credit John Newman, along with a handful of others, for shaping and sustaining the culture of the Division of Allergy, Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine over the last 45 years as a place where collaboration is the rule and excellence is the goal,” said Timothy Blackwell, MD, Rudy W. Jacobson Professor of Pulmonary Medicine and the division’s director. “This foundation supported the growth and development of the world-class group of faculty and trainees that we have today.

“John was a great role model for me and others by always being available and interested in hearing about a case, a new research idea, or an administrative problem — and then being willing to offer honest feedback and advice. I sat in his office or stood in the hallway countless times when he patiently listened to my problem, offered the response I needed to hear (but may not want to hear), and then ended with something positive like: ‘you’re doing a great job,” whether that was true or not at the time.”

Jane Freedman, MD, Gladys Parkinson Stahlman Professor of Cardiovascular Research, interim chair of the Department of Medicine and Physician-in-Chief of Vanderbilt University Hospital, said Dr. Newman was a quintessential example of Vanderbilt’s commitment to the tripartite mission of education, research and patient care.

“Dr. Newman provided inspirational research, mentorship and clinical care for our patients with pulmonary disease, ultimately shaping the field broadly at Vanderbilt for nearly a half-century,” Freedman said.

A beloved faculty member who was also instrumental in finding the genes for brisket disease in cattle and for IgG4-related disease, Dr. Newman was recruited to Vanderbilt in 1979, was awarded the Elsa S. Hanigan Chair in Pulmonary Medicine in 1985, and became the chief of pulmonary medicine at the Vanderbilt training affiliate, Saint Thomas Hospital, from 1985 to 1995.

He was then recruited to be chief of the medical service at the Nashville VA Hospital, from 1995 to 2003, then returned to VUMC and became director of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine’s first-year physi­ology course and the program director of the Pulmonary-Critical Care Fellowship until his retirement in 2022.

He had continuous funding from the National Institutes of Health for 45 years, with three NIH grants in 2021, one as co-principal investigator in the Vanderbilt site of the Undiagnosed Diseases Network.

“John was simply the best mentor, friend and person that I can imagine; the opportunity to train with him as a pulmonary fellow in 1980 and decades thereafter changed my life,” said his longtime friend, Loyd.

Dr. Newman was a 1971 graduate of Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. He completed an internal medicine residency at Columbia and the Johns Hopkins Hospital and a pulmonary and critical care fellowship at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in 1979. He was the author of more than 120 publications, seven in The New England Journal of Medicine, and mentored multiple successful young investigators and teachers in the field of pulmonary disease and pulmonary hypertension, many of whom are now national leaders.

Blackwell said the common theme throughout the course of Dr. Newman’s career has been his commitment to improving patient care through research and training of generations of physicians and scientists. In 2022 the John Newman Directorship for Education in Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine was created for supporting the division’s education mission. It is held by Meredith Pugh, MD, MSCI, associate professor of Medicine and director of the Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine fellowship program.

Another close colleague, Anna Hemnes, MD, associate professor of Medicine, said Dr. Newman’s contributions to the field were transformational.

“Dr. Newman was the consummate physician-scientist. In patient care, he was our ‘go-to’ expert even in his retirement. His research was motivated by his observations taking care of patients with pulmonary vascular disease and truly transformed how we think about pulmonary hypertension over the decades of his career,” she said.

“I’m sure if you asked him about what he did for the field, though, he would shift the conversation to shine light on all the people that he mentored and the success that they had,” Hemnes said. “While today is a truly sad day for our community, so many people across Vanderbilt and truly worldwide benefited from working under his guidance. His legacy will be carried on, moving the field forward into the next many decades just as he would have wanted it.”

Dr. Newman is survived by his wife, Rebecca Lyford; daughter Katherine Newman and her husband, Kevin Edwards; son Alexander Newman; and grandchildren Elliot, Alexandra and Leo Edwards.

A celebration of life will be held at Scarritt Bennett’s Wrightman Chapel on Saturday, March 9 at 11 a.m.