Pulling Back the Curtain: David A. Williams, MD

David A. Williams, MD
President of the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center and the Leland Fikes Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and 2015 ASH President

What was your first job?

I had a few jobs as a kid. In the fourth grade, I delivered newspapers. Then my dad got me a job at a paint and carpet store, unloading paint off of semi-trucks. That was easily my worst job, but, shortly after that I started the best job I had when I was younger: working at a McDonald’s restaurant.

My duties were to clean the toilets (which were outside of the main restaurant at that time) and pick up trash off of the parking lot for 65 cents an hour. People are usually shocked when I tell them that, but, actually, I quite enjoyed it. I worked my way up through the McDonald’s system, and learned a lot in the process.

What was your childhood like?

I grew up in a small Midwestern city, Terre Haute, Indiana, and my family were pig farmers. My father served in World War II, so he never finished high school. When he came back, he worked for the newspaper; he was a good writer and went very far considering he had no formal education.

I grew up in a big family of five kids – I have two older brothers, two younger sisters, and I am right in the middle. We were pretty poor, but we didn’t know it, so it didn’t really matter.

I owe my work ethic to my Midwestern upbringing and my family.

What sparked your interest in medicine? Were there any teachers or mentors that inspired you to pursue medicine?

Well, I had always loved science and math. I originally thought I was going to be an engineer. In high school, though, I had a particularly great human physiology teacher, Mr. Payne. He completely turned me on to human physiology and biology.

Recently, I was inducted into my high school’s hall of fame and was asked to come back to give a short talk to the student body. I mentioned Mr. Payne in my speech, and afterward, a student came up to me and introduced himself as Mr. Payne’s grandson. It’s amazing how, in these smaller communities, people stick around.

Then, I worked my way through college by working nights in a hospital clinical laboratory. I was there by myself from 4 p.m. to 7 a.m. every fifth night, so it was a difficult – but great – job. I learned a tremendous amount of medicine, and it was also where I fell in love with hematology and met my future wife of 42 years, Cindy. She was an undergraduate nursing student, and I was an undergraduate biology major; we used to study blood smears on a two-headed microscope late at night. For that (and many other reasons) she thought I was a pretty weird guy. So, that job holds some special memories.

What have been your greatest accomplishments in your career?

Honestly, the thing I am most proud of is developing successful fellowship and training programs mentoring young people at Indiana University and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and continuing the legacy of David Nathan, MD, and Samuel Lux, MD, in Boston.

Mentorship is so important. My first research experience as a medical student was in the lab of two pediatric hematologists, Robert Baehner, MD, and Laurence Boxer, MD. They were incredible mentors and got me excited about research. Of course, I was already heavily in love with hematology, but I never had an opportunity to perform research until then. I spent that first summer in their lab and then spent the rest of medical school career working with them. They were amazing; they took care of patients, conducted research, and taught.

When I started my fellowship at Boston Children’s Hospital, Dr. Nathan became my mentor and, 30 years later, he continues to be my mentor. In my career, I have tried to emulate him – his dedication to science, the way he relates to his patients, and, very importantly, his dedication to young people.

Dr. Nathan told me early on, “What you do with your own career is of little significance, but what you do to foster other people’s career is long-lasting and of much importance.” So, my goal has been to facilitate young people’s training to allow them to have meaningful careers and develop themselves independently. Hopefully, I did that well.

When you work with trainees and early-career hematologists, what advice do you pass on to them?

I stress to them how important it is to do what you are passionate about. Whatever it is that you are passionate about, do it, and do it to the very best possible level that you can. In other words, what I often tell people in our fellowship program who are entering their research training, for instance, is, “Whatever it is you decide to do at the end of your training period – whether that’s three years or five years – you should come out on the other side as a world expert in that. Focus and dedicate yourself to that.”

My own view is that, while intelligence is needed, it is also highly overrated. I believe that whatever success you have in your career comes from hard work and dedication, as well as a little bit of good luck. Much of that has to do with the mentorship you receive early in your career.

In a typical day, what is your rose and what is your thorn?

In general, I love my days, and I enjoy coming to work. I get up at a quarter to 4 every morning and start working at 4 to get a lot of work done before I get to the office. I would say, although it sounds quite corny, every day, I think about how lucky I am to have the position that I have, the colleagues that I have, and the family that I have.

I’m a pretty upbeat person, so it’s hard to think of anything that I dread. As an administrator, naturally, the thing I like least are useless, seemingly endless meetings that don’t get us very far down the road to where we want to be. But, that’s part of life. We all have disappointments and things we don’t want to do. I’m not sure I have more or less than anybody else. But I try to think about where I am and how I got here, remembering all the good things that I have in my life.

My wife is a nurse administrator now. I love her, of course, as a wife, but I also admire her professionally. She is one of these people who gets the job done and cares more about helping folks than politics. Both of us are dedicated to helping people to get started early in their careers.

Both being in the medical field, did you and your wife think that your daughter would follow your footsteps?

Not at all! I asked my daughter, Emily, why she decided to study medicine, since we tried not to influence her. She is currently a third-year cardiology fellow at Children’s Hospital of Atlanta. She is a wonderful, compassionate, caring, and smart person. She loves people, so it was an understandable choice, but she told me that, over the years when she was at friends’ houses, she saw that their parents’ often hated their jobs. My wife and I, however, continued to love our jobs, even though we had been doing them for a long time. That made a tremendous impression on her.

Actually, from what I’ve seen, it seems that, for many people in medicine, their kids go as far away from medicine as possible. That wasn’t the case with us.

Emily and her husband, a cardiothoracic surgeon, are expecting their first child (our first grandchild).

With you and your wife both in medicine, did that make work/life balance difficult?

It is tough, especially for young people now. I’m known by most people as a workaholic, and when I was a fellow, I worked very hard because it was a highly competitive environment. But, my daughter came along and then I started taking Wednesday afternoons off – religiously – to spend time with her. That lasted pretty much until she was out of school. Sharing that time together was so important. But, of course, I could not have succeeded without the never-ending support of my wife.

What do you do in the off-hours (when you have them)?

Actually, because my daughter was interested in horses when she was younger, I learned how to ride later in life and we spent much quality time together riding. I had never ridden before, but it was a fantastic father-daughter hobby that we still enjoy together. When she went off to college, I continued riding regularly and now do that one early morning every week and nearly every weekend.

Now my wife and I have a little farm, with horses and chickens, and we also keep bees. That environment is a great joy in my life. I guess that’s the Midwesterner in me.
I love reading and learning about American history. After I slow down at work, I might like to travel to historical sites around the country, but I mostly travel for work and try to fit it in where I can.

Is there any other skill or hobby that you’d like to take up eventually?

Well, I’m totally untrained (and perhaps untrainable) in music. Even though I love listening to classical music, I don’t know how to play an instrument. I wish I had learned at least how to play the guitar when I was younger.

My only real musical experience was being forced into the church children’s choir, which my wife claims scarred me for life.

What is one thing about you people would be surprised to find out?

It’s no secret that I’m very hard-working, which might lead some people to think I’m overly tough or demanding or even grumpy. But the people I work closely with know that I never expect more of others than I do of myself and I am extremely loyal to those who work with me. I have tried to dedicate my professional life to training and using science to have an impact on my patients.