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Vol. LXII, No. 11
May 28, 2010

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Cardiovascular Research Pioneer Braunwald Reflects on NIH Career

Distinguished Harvard Medical School professor and cardiologist who is sometimes referred to as the “father of cardiology,” Dr. Eugene Braunwald spoke at an NHLBI staff seminar on Apr. 12, where he reflected on his explorations in cardiovascular research and the many pivotal moments that influenced his career.

Dr. Eugene Braunwald

Dr. Eugene Braunwald

Braunwald also paid tribute to the many mentors—two of whom were NHLBI employees—who helped shape his career and fostered an environment where the boundaries of discovery were pushed daily. His many accomplishments include being the first cardiologist elected to the National Academy of Sciences and being recognized by the living Nobel Prize winners in medicine and physiology as the person who has contributed the most to cardiology in recent years.

“I spent 13 of the best years of my professional life here,” said Braunwald, referring to his time at the National Heart Institute (now NHLBI). But his relationship with cardiovascular research began several years prior to his days at NIH.

In 1951, Braunwald embarked on what would be a 58-year endeavor when he was given the opportunity as a medical student to work alongside Dr. Ludwig Eichna in the cardiac catheterization laboratory at Bellevue Hospital Center in New York City. There his fascination with research took hold, primarily in five areas: valvular heart disease, acute myocardial infarction, congestive heart failure, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and lipid metabolism.

When Braunwald began his work, the diagnostic and treatment landscape differed greatly from what it is today. Neither echocardiography nor coronary angiography were available and open-heart surgeries were not being performed. He and his colleagues were the first to use angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors (ACE inhibitors) to prevent adverse remodeling of an infarcted ventricle.

When Braunwald came to NIH in July 1955, he began in the lab of Dr. Andrew Glenn Morrow, the first chief of cardiac surgery at NHI. Braunwald called his time with Morrow the “most satisfying intellectual experience.” According to Braunwald, by challenging him to write scientific papers clearly and effectively, Morrow helped move his career forward.

In an article titled “Adventures in Cardiovascular Research,” which was published last year in Circulation, Braunwald reflected on his time at NHI and his collaboration with Morrow. “Rarely did a week pass when we did not observe or measure something that was new…We experienced the exhilaration that we imagined Lewis and Clark must have felt when they explored the great American wilderness early in the 19th century.”

That article—and Braunwald’s talk—acknowledged another cardiology pioneer in the family: his first wife, Dr. Nina S. Braunwald (1928-1992), who also worked at NHI in the 1950s. Owing to Morrow’s guidance and encouragement, Nina was also able to see her cardiovascular research dreams through to fruition, becoming the first female cardiac surgeon in the world and the first woman to perform open-heart surgery and successfully replace a heart valve. Braunwald said his wife broke through the low and thick glass ceiling in her field because of the direction and support provided to her by mentors and colleagues at NHI.

As Braunwald said of those halcyon days, “Anyone who was doing any interesting research in the world was here at the NIH.” NIHRecord Icon

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