September 21, 2007

‘Model physician’ Billings dies at 95

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F. Tremaine Billings, M.D.

‘Model physician’ Billings dies at 95

F. Tremaine Billings, M.D., professor of Medicine Emeritus at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and a member of the Vanderbilt faculty since 1941, died Sunday, Sept. 16. He was 95.

Dr. Billings, known to his friends as Josh, was a 1933 graduate of Princeton University, received his medical degree from Johns Hopkins University in 1938, and did his medical training at Johns Hopkins and Vanderbilt, where he was chief resident of Medicine.

He served in the Hopkins Medical Unit in the Southwest Pacific during World War II, and after the war, joined the faculty at Vanderbilt, where he filled many roles. In addition to practicing internal medicine, he served as the dean of Medical Students from 1960-1967, associate dean for Medical Center Development Programs from 1967-1975, and helped develop a health program for rural areas in Appalachia. While at Vanderbilt, he was instrumental in forming the partnership between VUMC and Meharry Medical College, and served as chair of Meharry's Department of Medicine from 1953-1961.

Anderson Spickard Jr., Chancellor's Professor of Medicine, trained under Dr. Billings during his third year of residency at Vanderbilt. His mentorship, and his character, left such an impression on Spickard that he and his wife, Sue, named one of their sons after him — David Billings Spickard.

“He is the ultimate example of what a good doctor should be — honest and careful,” Spickard said. “He devoted his life to the diagnosis and proper therapy of every patient he came in contact with. He taught us about house calls and their value, and of the importance of an accurate history and physical exam.”

Spickard said that Dr. Billings also left a long-lasting impression on his patients. “When Josh Billings leaned over and took a patient's hand, telling them what they needed to know, the patient believed him. He had a way about him. He created a confidence in what he said that was second to none, and he was deeply, earnestly interested in his patients' welfare.”

Dr. Billings was an honored scholar-athlete at Princeton, where his all-around accomplishments won him the Pyne Honor Prize, the highest distinction given by the University to an undergraduate. He excelled at athletics, lettering in lacrosse, wrestling and football. In 1932, his senior year, he was captain of the football team, and in 2000 was selected as Princeton's “outstanding scholar-athlete of the century.” After Princeton, he won a Rhodes Scholarship to pursue his medical training at Oxford University, where he earned a B.S. degree from Balliol College University of Oxford in 1936.

His ties to Princeton remained strong all his life. He served as a Princeton Alumni Trustee and until recently was the class secretary for the Class of 1933, supplying Princeton Alumni Weekly with regular updates on his classmates. In 2003 The New York Times featured an article about Dr. Billings' class secretary duties. At that time 56 of 622 graduates were still living, and the article talked about Dr. Billings' attempt to keep the updates positive despite many of the graduates' debilitating ailments.

He also stayed busy with volunteer work after retiring in 1995. He worked with the literacy program in Nashville, wrote health-related columns in the Tennessean, and kept up with the Department of Medicine through his many friends and colleagues.

Longtime colleague John Oates, M.D., Thomas F. Frist Professor of Medicine, remembers Dr. Billings' dedication to the practice of medicine and to VUSM.

“His contributions reflected his sterling character, an ever positive approach, and an unquenchable enthusiasm. To the students and residents, he was a model physician, and one who was beloved by his patients,” Oates said.

“When I was chair of the Department of Medicine, his support of our teaching programs was a valued asset, and I was privileged to enjoy his regular participation in our morning reports. Josh had a gift for friendship, which was good fortune for me and for many of us.”

In 1978 Dr. Billings was honored with a daylong celebration of his career — Josh Billings Day. In 1999 a chair was established in his honor. Jason D. Morrow, M.D., holds the title of F. Tremaine Billings Professor of Medicine.

“I met Dr. Billings in the first month of my medicine internship at Vanderbilt in 1983 when I helped care for a patient of his dying of cancer,” Morrow said. “What I will never forget was his compassion as a physician and human being. Over the years, we became great friends and he was very instrumental in shaping my career. He was one of the few people who I could always confide in and trust his opinion on important matters. Holding the Billings Chair in Medicine has been a great honor.”

Dr. Billings was preceded in death by his wife of 61 years, Ann Howe Billings. He is survived by three children — Frederic T. Billings III, Ann Howe Billings Hilton and John Howe Billings — six grandchildren, and one great-grandchild, Frederic Tremaine Billings V.

The family has selected four groups to benefit from donations made in Dr. Billings' memory: The Nashville Literacy Council, Alive Hospice of Nashville, Meharry Medical College and Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.