Transitionnot retirementis ahead for cardiovascular expert and former Cornell medical school dean Antonio Gotto.
While in the College of Arts and Science in the mid-1950s, young Antonio Gotto Jr. caught the attention of his Sigma Nu fraternity brothers, who constantly sought out the clever student for crash courses in their own studies.
The biochemistry major also found himself with no shortage of eager mentors (in particular Dean Madison Sarratt and Dr. F. Tremaine Billings) who encouraged him to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship, modeled discipline and diligence, and taught him how to write—elements that would enrich his career and life in unforeseen ways.
This year, Gotto (BA’57, MD’65)—now a world-renowned expert of atherosclerosis, the primary cause of cardiovascular disease—retired as Cornell University’s provost for medical affairs and the Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean at Weill Cornell Medical College in Manhattan.
During his 15-year tenure as dean, Gotto oversaw the raising of $2.6 billion in various campaigns. He established a school branch and biomedical research program in Qatar, joined forces with the Catholic church and Tanzanian government to start a medical school in Tanzania, and formed an affiliation with Methodist Hospital in Houston. He also quadrupled Weill Cornell’s endowment and created 122 new faculty endowments during what benefactor Sanford Weill considered the school’s “golden age.”
Beneath the titles and accolades, those who know Tony Gotto say he is first and foremost a devoted dad, quick wit, voracious reader and the kind of man to put Weill at ease by ordering less-than-heart-healthy eggs Benedict—one of Weill’s favorites—at a breakfast meeting.
No Leisurely Retirement
“He’s the most comfortable person you’ll ever meet,” says longtime family friend Barbara Gregg Phillips (BA’58, MA’70), who roomed with Anita, Gotto’s wife of 53 years, while they were students at Peabody College. “He always makes you feel like he’s glad you’re there, a Southern gentleman through and through.”
But make no mistake: There’s no peaceful rocking chair in this Southern gentleman’s immediate future. Gotto is transitioning into a new role of co-chairing the Board of Overseers of Weill Cornell Medical College. His first year of retirement is looking less and less like a sabbatical by the hour, says Anita Safford Gotto, BS’59. Dr. Gotto won’t have the day-to-day running of the medical school under his purview, but there still will be meetings and plenty of travel.
“He’s planning the international section of our trips, and I’m getting together the national section,” she says. “It is still to be determined just how this retirement is going to work out.”
If anyone would know, it would be Anita Gotto. His partner in vocation as well as in life, she has been a constant confidante, encourager and helpmate. They each tell the story of how they met on a bus to summer camp when they were 13 and 15—but only Anita adds the fact that she spent most of her first year of high school in the girl’s bathroom avoiding his pursuit. She eventually gave in when she saw how many others thought highly of him; by the time Gotto left Nashville on the Rhodes Scholarship for the University of Oxford, they were engaged.
Researcher, Scholar, Physician and Dad
Under the leadership of Sir Hans Kornberg and Sir Hans Krebs, Gotto’s time at the British university opened his eyes to the underlying pathophysiology of disease, and a focus on lipidology came next. He enjoyed a season at the National Institutes of Health, then spent 20 years chairing the Department of Internal Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and the Methodist Hospital, all the while researching the link between cholesterol carriers (the good and bad cholesterol) and heart disease, and became a pioneer in educational efforts aimed at cardiovascular risk reduction.
“To use a football metaphor, Dean Gotto is a ‘triple threat.’’’
—David Skorton, President, Cornell University
He also kept a steady roster of patients, ranging from international dignitaries to everyday folks. And he became the father of three daughters—two of whom developed diabetes early on, deepening his passion for helping those who are sick become well. One developed further complications that have disabled her; the Gottos travel to Houston to be with her every few weeks.
“It resets your priorities when one of your children has a serious, life-threatening illness,” Gotto says. “It does alter everything.”
Future days, of course, will bring more time with family, more time with friends and more time spent on the visionary, big-picture ideas that are a hallmark of Gotto’s career.
Preparation and Hard Work
Among those visionary concepts was proving a link between cholesterol and hardening of the arteries and thus the connection between lowering cholesterol and lower incidence of heart disease. Another was the transformation of complex medical information into layman’s language in the groundbreaking books by Gotto and longtime friend, heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey. Their The Living Heart, The New Living Heart and The New Living Heart Cookbook championed healthy, good-tasting food. A revised edition, The Living Heart in the 21st Century, was published in April.
Today, Gotto looks back on his time in the College of Arts and Science as a season of great preparation—and a lot of hard work.
“I had grown up knowing about Vanderbilt, and it was the only place I wanted to go,” says Gotto, named the university’s Distinguished Alumnus in 2000. “It had a reputation for having very high academic standards.” It also had a rigorous, disciplined program that set good habits for the more independent, less structured format he found at Oxford.
“I worked very hard,” he says. “Particularly my first year. It got a little easier, but not much.…I can’t say whether students then were any more or less smart. But I’m glad I don’t have to compete to get into medical school today.”
He’s also glad, he says, that his career ended up taking him to the dean’s office at Cornell, where his everyday presence will be sorely missed.
“To use a football metaphor, Dean Gotto is a ‘triple threat,’” says Cornell University President David Skorton. “If he were playing gridiron football, he would be equally adept at running, passing and kicking, and thus a very valuable player on his team—as he has been on the Cornell team for 15 years.
“He excels in teaching, research and clinical care,” Skorton says. “He combines empathy for his patients, students and colleagues with an incisive intellect and a strong commitment to engagement for using his enormous and varied skills to lift the world’s burdens.”
photo credit: Weill Cornell Medical College; John Russell