Sidney C. Smith, Jr.
Class of 1963, BS
In 1963, Sid Smith graduated as a fledgling chemical engineer. He had only one problem – his next dream was to practice medicine. So, he opted to pursue the Hippocratic Oath, and the young honors student, also an all-star high school football player, used his chemical engineering (ChE) degree from Virginia Tech as a stepping stone to attend Yale Medical School.
Today, he makes each of his alma maters proud as a former (1995) President of the American Heart Association (AHA) and the first person to hold the title of AHA’s Chief Science Officer (2001-03). He’s met in the Oval Office with two sitting Presidents of the United States on health matters, and with national leaders such as Tommy Thompson, Secretary of Health and Human Services, on such topics as the standards of cardiac care that should be provided nationally by the medical profession and funding of prescription drugs for the Medicare population.
He is also prominent in world health matters, serving as Chair of the World Heart and Stroke Forum, and as a member of the Executive Committee of the World Heart Federation. “I am throwing my heart and soul into the forum,” Dr. Smith says today. This forum is drafting guidelines, based on a mix of cultural norms and scientific evidence, to reduce risk of heart disease and stroke, now the leading causes of mortality worldwide. Strategies vary drastically from countries such as Ethiopia to China to the U.S.A. Cardiovascular disease in developing nations is on the rise due to the Westernization of their life styles and, in fact, 80 per cent of cardiovascular mortality occurs in developing economies, not in economically advanced western societies. Dr. Smith is quick to point out that groups, such as the World Bank, not traditionally associated with medical issues, are keenly interested in this burgeoning problem because “a country crippled by medical problems cannot enter into the world economy.”
He was a child in Wilmington, Delaware, when he first considered the two professions. His father, a Virginia Tech graduate, was an engineer at Dupont, but several of his neighbors were physicians, and he had great respect for both careers. Recognizing his interest in science, he pursued his undergraduate degree in ChE. Counseled by one of his father’s colleagues, the esteemed Fred Bull, Chairman of Virginia Tech’s ChE Department, he added some biology courses to his academic load. Yale’s Admissions Office liked what they saw on his transcript, and he was on his way to making medical history. By 1993, Dr. Smith would be selected Physician of the Year by the AHA.
In his early 20s when entering medical school, breakthroughs were occurring with artificial heart valves, transplants, and a variety of new diagnostic techniques used to treat heart disease. These advances allowed Dr. Smith to appreciate the value of his engineering background. “I realized it would be a true resource, particularly with cardiovascular work,” he reflects.
After graduating from Yale Medical School, and completing his residency and fellowship at Harvard University’s Brigham Hospital, Dr. Smith entered the U.S. Navy where he spent two years as a cardiologist at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Norfolk, Virginia. In addition to serving as Director of the Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory, his duties included caring for returning prisoners of war from Vietnam. In 1973, he moved to Denver to direct the University of Colorado’s Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory.
As part of his effort to be responsive to the area’s citizens, he established cardiac clinics in rural areas of Colorado. He recalls rising at 6:00 a.m., getting on a Frontier Airline prop plane, traveling to an outreach clinic on the western slope, and seeing patients all day.
Four years later, he moved to San Diego to head the Department of Cardiology at Sharp Memorial Hospital. He also directed the San Diego Cardiac Center that grew into one of the three busiest cardiac centers in the state. He continued his work in interventional cardiology, participated with the team performing San Diego’s first heart transplantation, and initiated innovative programs aimed at preventing heart disease.
During his 17 years in San Diego, he was active in community and civic affairs that included serving as President of the Board of Trustees for LaJolla Country Day School and Fleet Surgeon for the San Diego Yacht Club where the America’s Cup Races were held.
Dr. Smith and his wife Lucy returned to the East Coast in 1994 when he was recruited to the position of Chief of the Cardiology Division at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 2001, he became the Chief Science Officer for the AHA.
In 2003, he returned to a full-time role at UNC to serve as Director of the Center for Cardiovascular Science and Medicine. “There is a tremendous need for the academic environment to keep pace with medical changes. The Center for Cardiovascular Science and Medicine at UNC reaches well beyond cardiology. We combine strategies to study the translation of findings from basic science to clinical therapies that improve patient care. A major focus is on the development and evaluation of guidelines for cardiovascular care which are implemented at the national and international level,” Dr. Smith says.
Among his additional credentials, he was a member of the AHA’s national board of directors from 1991 to 1997. He served on the AHA’s Science Advisory and Coordinating Committee and chaired the International Program Committee and the Clinical Science Committee. He is Vice President of the Inter-American Society of Cardiology and is a primary author of The Principles for National and Regional Guidelines on Cardiovascular Disease Prevention and more than 200 scientific articles and book chapters.
In June of 2000, he was awarded the AHA’s prestigious Gold Heart Award. In 2003, he received an Award of Special Recognition from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
At Virginia Tech, he is a member of Ut Prosim and the Committee of< 100, and a past member of the ChE and the college-wide Advisory Boards. In 1996, he accepted an adjunct professorship with Virginia Tech’s ChE Department, and he was honored with the Virginia Tech Distinguished Achievement Award.
Class of: 1963
Year Inducted into Academy: 2004