Dr. William Bremner: UW Medicine is still special after 50 years

By
Steve Butler
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Photo of Dr. William Bremner
Credit:
Clare McLean
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Dr. William Bremner knows UW Medicine well. He has been here as a medical student, resident, fellow and professor. He joined the UW School of Medicine faculty in 1977, and he has been Department of Medicine Chair since 1998.

He also served as chief of medical service at Seattle's VA Medical Center from 1987 to 1998. A specialist in male reproductive endocrinology, he is the co-founder and director of the UW Center for Research in Reproduction and Contraception.

As he prepares to step down from his role as department chair on July 31, Dr. Bremner reflected on his career and future plans.

Q: Will it feel strange to no longer be department chair? What will you do with your extra time?

A: Yes, very much so. I have been in a leadership role my entire time on the faculty. I will still be a full-time faculty member, and I will support Dr. Virginia Broudy, who becomes interim chair on August 1, in any way that she finds helpful. I look forward to having more time for research, patient care and teaching.

My wife and I are planning to travel to some new places. In September, we will go from St. Petersburg to Moscow on a small cruise ship. Future travel destinations include Vietnam, Cambodia and Antarctica.

Q: What types of changes have you seen in medicine over your career?

A: Biomedical research has led to effective and affordable therapies to prevent some of the worst scourges, such as polio and smallpox. Progress for patients with HIV has also been very dramatic. Thanks to drug therapies, it is now a chronic disease rather than a short-term fatal disease.

Another example is heart disease, which has been declining over the last 20 years. Until the 1950s, there were no drugs for treating high blood pressure. A classic example is the lack of treatments for President Franklin Roosevelt, who died from a hypertensive stroke in 1945.

We have wonderful new imaging techniques, such as CT and MRI, to diagnose disease and pinpoint treatments.

Q: Has anything been lost along the way?

A: We need to preserve the human-to-human contact between doctors and their patients, which is a key part of getting better. Technology can be a barrier, but ultimately its benefits outweigh the costs. As a country, we face the challenge of providing adequate access to medical care for the entire population at an affordable level.

Q: How did you become interested in endocrinology?

A: Endocrinology is the study of hormones, which are secreted by the pituitary, thyroid, adrenal and other endocrine glands. As a medical student, I found these patients fascinating because we could generally make sense of their symptoms and treat them effectively.

My research has focused on human reproduction and male contraception. The need for more options for men is great because there has been nothing new since the condom for reversible male contraception. Our group has several promising areas of work such as a once-daily pill, which is led by Dr. Stephanie Page and has received considerable recent media attention. We are also testing a male contraceptive gel in a separate international clinical trial, including sites in Kenya and Chile. And very novel work on a non-hormonal approach is being advanced by Dr. John Amory.

Q: What did you enjoy most about being department chair?

A: I am most proud of our success in recruiting superb faculty, fellows, residents and staff. As the largest department in the University, we have more than 1,000 full-time and more than 1,200 voluntary clinical faculty members in 13 divisions. This means that we have 60 to 100 open searches at any given time.

I see my role as finding the best people in the world and putting them in an environment where they can successfully advance their careers. This has also led to an enormous expansion of our research and clinical programs in all areas of medicine.

Q: What makes UW Medicine special?

A: I am totally indebted to UW Medicine. Except for an internship at Vanderbilt University and a great three years in Australia for a Ph.D. in reproductive endocrinology, I have been here my entire career.

When I started as a medical student in 1964, the Department of Medicine was only 16 years old. Today, we are part of a spectacular medical school and health system. Our growth over the past 50 years is seriously impressive. Everybody who works here should be proud. That sums it up!

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