Cardiologist to the who’s who of Houston for decades, Dr. James T. Willerson died at CHI St. Luke’s Hospital Wednesday as the result of a long illness. He was 80. Most recently serving as president emeritus of the Texas Heart Institute, Willerson was recognized internationally for seminal research in stem cells for the repair of hearts and cardiovascular vessels injured by heart attacks.
Among those who counted Willerson as both a friend and personal cardiologist were former Secretarty of State James A. Baker, former Houston Mayor Bob Lanier, philanthropists Margaret Williams and Jeanie Kilroy, art dealer Meredith Long, famed restaurateur Tony Vallone and even famed heart surgeon Dr. Denton Cooley.
In fact, Willerson credited his meeting with Cooley when he was 14 years old, at a time when Cooley and his team had performed 10,000 heart operations, with leading him into cardiology. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship and collaboration at the Texas Heart Institute.
So committed to his patients, Willerson was known to return phone calls to them back in Houston whether he was in China, Turkey or South America. His quiet nature and often abrupt manner in the exam room would belie his intense passion for serving his patients. He was at the very least once seen weeping at the funeral of one of his patients.
On the Texas Heart Institute Website, THI board chairman Eric Wade notes, “Dr. Willerson lived a tremendous life defined by curiosity and an eternally burning flame for the study of the human heart and its myriad complexities, and on behalf of the Texas Heart Institute Board of Trustees, it is with a heavy heart that I share the news of his passing.”
His bio at Texas Heart Institute tallies his numerous lauded positions and accolades: President of The University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston from 2001-2008, recently retired as the Edward Randall III Professor of Internal Medicine at The UT Medical School at Houston. He holds the Dunn Chair in Cardiology Research at THI, the Willerson/O’Quinn Chair at THI, the James T. Willerson, MD Distinguished Chair in Cardiovascular Diseases at UT Southwestern Medical School in Dallas and The Institute of Molecular Medicine “IMM” at the University of U.T. Health Houston. He has been named a Distinguished Alumnus at the University of Texas, Austin, and at the Baylor College of Medicine. A swimming scholarship is named in his honor at The University of Texas at Austin.
Born in Lampasas to two physicians, Willerson graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Texas where he led the swimming team to a state championship. But it was UT football that was his passion second only to medicine. He attended Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and completed his training in internal medicine and cardiology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and Harvard Medical School.
Funeral arrangements are being handled by Geo. H. Lewis & Sons.