Thomas Detre built his career on the ashes of tragedy

Thomas Detre built his career on the ashes of tragedy

Dr. Thomas P. Detre, the psychiatrist whose drive and ingenuity led the University of Pittsburgh’s schools of the health sciences to worldwide distinction, died Saturday, Oct. 9, in his Point Breeze home, following a long illness. He was 86.
Detre was known as the architect behind the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s transformation from a teaching hospital into an integrated global health enterprise.
He held the titles of emeritus distinguished senior vice chancellor for the health sciences, and emeritus distinguished service professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh since 2004.
While serving as senior vice chancellor, Detre came up with an innovative funding cycle, moving money from clinical practice into interdisciplinary research, and then applying the results of those endeavors to clinical advances. As a result, the number of patients increased, and Pitt’s
medical arm grew, positioning the university to become one of the nation’s top 10 recipients of research support from the National Institutes of Health, a status it has sustained for the last 13 years.
Detre was born Tamas Feldmeier on May 17, 1924, in Budapest, Hungary. He decided to become a psychiatrist when he was 14. When he was 20, he found out that his parents and 20 other family members were murdered at Auschwitz. The very next year, he took the name “Detre,” from the French verb meaning “to be,” to signify his resolve to continue living.
Detre left behind a tenured position at Yale University in 1973 to come to the University of Pittsburgh, becoming director of the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, and chairman of the Department of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine. While at WPIC, he brought in many accomplished physician-scientists and other talented health professionals to start large-scale research programs, revamp psychiatric training and re-invent community outreach. Under his guidance, the psychiatry department became one of the top three in NIH funding within a decade, and the number of its full-time faculty grew from 36 to almost 150 between 1974 and 1982.
“He had a great degree of European charm, and on the other hand, was a demanding and straightforward person,” said Dr. David Kupfer, the Thomas Detre professor of psychiatry at UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Kupfer was Detre’s “first recruit” after coming to Pittsburgh from Yale.
“Basically, he was so successful in recruiting because of his vision and his charisma,” Kupfer said. “We had the sense we would be able to create a modern department in Pittsburgh. He was a terrific mentor and role model. He was very caring, and a very smart physician and clinician.”
From 1986 to 1990, Detre served as president of what was called the Medical and Health Care Division of the University of Pittsburgh, and served as president of UPMC from 1990 to 1992. Between 1998 and 2004, he served as executive vice president of international and academic programs, and later served as medical director of international programs for UPMC Health System.
“Tom Detre was the most accomplished academic leader I have known, and it was a great privilege to work with and learn from him,” said Mark A. Nordenberg, chancellor and chief executive officer of the University of Pittsburgh in a prepared statement. His impact — in advancing the cause of human health and in enhancing the reputation, quality of life and economic strength of Pittsburgh, a city that he loved — was enormous. In addition to his legendary record of professional achievement and impact, Tom was beloved for his kindness, compassion, wit and old-world charm.”
Detre received a bachelor’s degree in classical languages from the Gymnasium of Piarist Fathers in Kecskemet, Hungary, in 1942. He completed his medical degree at the University of Rome School of Medicine in 1952. He interned at Morrisania City Hospital in New York, and trained in psychiatry at Mt. Sinai Hospital, New York, and Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn.
He moved to Pittsburgh in 1973 with his wife, renowned epidemiologist Dr. Katherine M. Detre. She died in January 2006, almost 50 years after they were married.
Detre is survived by his second wife, Ellen Ormond of Point Breeze, sons Dr. John A. Detre of Philadelphia and Antony J. Detre of New York City, and four grandchildren.
Memorial gifts may be made to the Katherine Detre Scholarship Fund at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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