Perspectives is an ongoing series of Q&A’s with longtime McGovern Medical School faculty and staff, giving readers a glimpse into how the campus has changed over the years and the impact the school has had on their professional lives. This week’s edition of Perspectives features Heinrich Taegtmeyer, MD, DPhil, FACC, FAHA, professor of internal medicine, Division of Cardiology.
What first brought you to McGovern Medical School?
I grew up in Germany. When I graduated from medical school at the University of Freiburg, I never thought I would spend almost half of my life in Texas with its hot climate. Like earlier moves, the move to Houston was not exactly planned. The answer to the question is simple. After much training in medicine, cardiology, metabolism, I needed a job.
I received my PhD in 1981, four years after passing my boards in cardiovascular medicine. I never thought of any other career path than that of a physician-scientist, and the new medical school here in Houston offered me all I needed: Lab space (to set up my working heart apparatus and essential analytical instruments) embedded in the medical school with all the different departments under one roof, situated right next door to the school’s main teaching hospital and located in the heart of the Texas Medical Center. This setting has been “a gift that has kept on giving,” as it is reflected in my continuous funding through a series of RO1 grants from the NIH since 1976. I once bragged about the good fortunes that, at the time when my present funding come to an end, I will have received support from the NIH for 45 years. I graduated from medical school in 1968, so in addition to running my “Small Lab with Big Ideas,” I have been treating patients for 50 years (with the interruption of the three years I was a graduate student).
How has McGovern Medical School changed throughout your tenure here?
“Times are changing, and we are changing with the times,” as the Romans used to say. When I arrived at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, most people used to walk upright and could hear you when you spoke to them. Today, many people walk hunched over a small hand-held device and have to unplug their earphones to listen to me. When I arrived here electric typewriters were a novelty, and the school’s only fax machine was installed in in the Office of Communications (aka “Media Production”) in 1989. Around 1991, we had the first computers, and we were connected to the internet. Folks were divided into “Mac-Users” and “PC-Users.” Because most of my students had come from Rice, where Macs were already used in their classrooms, my lab was a “Mac-Lab,” sometimes to the irritation of PC users, and vice versa. On the whole, and thanks to all the many young people working with me, my lab has certainly kept up with the times, in the things we do at the bench, and in the way we cope with the abundance of information available to us. The challenge is not how much we know, but how we process the knowledge and discern the data of strategic value. In my lab’s case, it is to discern metabolism and how it is related to (or causes) the heart to fail. In the same context, one of my favorite lines in modern literature is a quote from the biochemist-turned writer Isaac Asimov (1920-1992): “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.”
Closer to home, our teaching hospitals have also grown exponentially and so has the Texas Medical Center. In 1982, who could have predicted a medical school class of 250? At the same time core elements have remained the same: Patients in need of doctors (and other health-care providers), and students in need of learning the art and science of medicine. Surprisingly for me, the electrocardiogram has not (yet) been replaced by a better method, and the computer readings still need to be corrected by a cardiologist (who, in turn, takes personal responsibility for the interpretations). Unexpected for me, too, is the fact that I have been following a good number of patients (about two dozen) in my clinic for more than 30 years now. The goal today is to empower our patients beyond what they know already from reading “Dr. Google.” All this would be impossible without the help from a changing cast of fellows, nurses, and assistants. Another thing I realize: The patients and I also grow old together, and their trust and loyalty sometimes overwhelms me at times, just as the joy which overcomes us in the lab when we review some exciting new research result. The long-term follow up of some of my patients teaches me more than any textbook about the natural history of heart disease and diabetes.
Are there any mentors or colleagues who have been instrumental to your development and achievements?
My best mentors are my wife and our three grown children, two of them physician-scientists and one a social worker. They are also my fairest critics. My wife, Gabriele, and I met in medical school in Germany. After her internship, she became a “stay-at-home mother” for growing up our children. These were the 1970s after all. Gabriele and I started out on the same level in our medical careers. And she always had the better grades. When we were dating she once asked me: “Have you ever read a textbook?” Now I realize that I will never be able to make good on her unwavering commitment to our small family when I took great risks in my work. Besides my wife and children, it was my father who was a forester and instilled in me the love for nature. In school and university I have had many brilliant teachers, so many that I still feel compelled to pay back for what they have given me so freely. I am hesitant to put down names, because each of my mentors has meant to me something special at different times. Some of them were professors, other colleagues, or technicians. And now my mentors are getting younger and younger, here at the school, in the TMC, and around the world. I am especially grateful to the two individuals who introduced me to bench research, Professor Herman Antoni when I was a medical student in Freiberg (Germany) and Mr. Reginald Herms when I was a graduate student at Oxford (England). Several other leaders had a strong influence on my limited education, like Dr. Maxwell Finland at the Boston City Hospital, and Dr. Lewis Dexter at the Brigham in Boston. Looking back, my most cherished mentors were individuals of exceptional humility and discipline. This applies especially to Professor Hans Krebs, the “Prof,” as we called him in the lab. I was already well beyond my formative years when he accepted me into the Metabolic Research Laboratory , as it turned out, as one of his two last graduate students (the other one was Krebs;’ long-term technician, David Wiggins). No other person has left a stronger impression on me than Krebs. Once he accepted a student into his lab, he was in daily contact with the student, as he as with all the other 15 members of the lab. Like a physician making rounds (Krebs was trained as a physician and always considered himself a physician and not a biochemist!), he moved in the in the morning from bench to bench, and, on top of this, each day the lab came together at 11 a.m. for a coffee break with the Prof. There was no need for formal lab meetings! Another amazing thing was that Krebs had the ability to run five or six projects in parallel. Once you were accepted into the group, the Prof was very approachable. When I handed him the first draft of my thesis he wrote across the title page: “Main conclusion missing.” One thing though, Krebs did only very reluctantly, if at all, writing letters of recommendation. His teacher, Otto Warburg, had already considered such letters as a “waste of a scientist’s time.”
Do you have any particular accomplishments, awards, or recognition that stand out and what makes them special?
I am probably the most proud of the two awards I received early in my career: The Byk Gulden Award of the University of Freiberg for the best student dissertation, and the Lyndon B. Johnson Award of the American Heart Association (AHA) for the best grant application in Texas. I also received a P.W. White Fellowship from the Massachusetts Affiliate of the AHA, which was my first grant when I was a fellow at the Brigham in Boston. This year Anja Karlstaedt, postdoctoral fellow in my lab, was awarded the P.W. White Scholarship Award from the Council of Basic Cardiovascular Sciences of the AHA. It seems like a cycle is closing. In addition, four of my postdoctoral fellows won national or international Young Investigator competitions of the AHA, the ACC, the ISHR, and the SMBS over the years. I have received several awards for research and humanism, including a 2017 listing in Forbes Magazine as one of America’s Top 27 Cardiologists. However, I am proudest of the accomplishments of my trainees.
What have you most enjoyed about your time at McGovern Medical School?
Great colleagues and students, the growth of the medical school, the growth of the Texas Medical Center, and my patients. Lastly, to paraphrase Helen Taussig (who has been an extraordinary mentor to me, but that’s another story), I thank my superiors that they never thought I was suited to take on major administrative responsibilities. This has truly saved a lot of time.
Smooth waters do not make a skilled sailor. I have been through many ups and downs during my years in the academic medicine. My Small Lab with Big Ideas has taken me to places I never thought I would see. The reason is quite simple: From heart disease to cancer, metabolism is a defining feature of every living cell (incidentally, the same cannot be said of DNA, because DNA is missing from red blood cells). Throughout the years, the work in my lab, all performed by a dedicated group of people less than half my age, has taken us from the isolated working heart to heart muscle cells in culture, from enzyme kinetics to flux-based mathematical modeling of metabolic pathways, from transgenic animals to gene editing and to the most advanced analytical techniques. Like my ’89 Volvo, the work at McGovern Medical School still takes me to places. The pun is intended. Lastly, I enjoy serving in the role of a physician–scientist at McGovern Medical School, where physician-scientists exist in many shapes and forms. The problem is, as Will Rogers said of the Boy Scouts (and Girl Scouts), there are not enough of them.