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New academic secretary recalls years at Oxford, night spent on a target range

L.A. Cicero Rex Jamison

Rex Jamison, a professor emeritus of medicine, is the university’s new academic secretary. He joined the faculty of the Medical School in 1971 as an associate professor and co-head of the Nephrology Division.

BY KATHLEEN J. SULLIVAN

As one of 24 students in his high school graduating class, Rex Jamison took an enormous step for a small-town boy who had grown up in the middle of Iowa corn country.

He enrolled at the University of Iowa, joining 9,000 other students.

What might have been an intimidating experience was actually an exhilarating one, said Jamison, the new academic secretary and a professor emeritus of medicine, during a recent interview in his office, in the southwest corner of the Main Quad.

"I was thrilled to be with students who were really keen about learning," he said. "Many of my high school classmates went on to careers in farming. At the university, I was surrounded by people who were interested in literature and history. It was just the right step for me."

Jamison was following a family tradition by making the trek to Iowa City. His father, a civil engineer, and his mother, an elementary school teacher, had both earned degrees there.

Still, it was only the first stop on Jamison's academic itinerary.

After graduating with a bachelor's degree in general science, Jamison crossed the Atlantic on the SS United States, a speedy ocean liner that delivered him to Southampton, England, in only six days. From there he took a bus to the University of Oxford with fellow Rhodes scholars from the United States. (In those days, they were all men.)

Jamison remembers walking down Oxford's cobblestone streets to Merton College, the oldest of the more than three dozen colleges that now compose the university, amid courtyards surrounded by stone buildings constructed in the 13th and 14th centuries.

"I had a feeling my life was about to change," recalled Jamison, who has hung a framed reproduction of a pen-and-ink drawing of Merton College near the conference table in his office.

Jamison, who wanted to become a doctor, enrolled in the honors program in physiology at Oxford, where he studied the original papers of Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley describing the electric transmission of impulses along nerves—they later won the Nobel Prize for their research—and realized that medicine was not a fixed subject, but a living one.

"It was an eye-opening and career-defining experience," Jamison said.

Those two years at Oxford also gave him the chance to see other countries. During a six-week excursion, Jamison and two college friends traveled across Europe to Greece in a Ford Anglia. (An enchanted, flying model of the British sedan appears in both the book and film versions of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.) One morning in Italy, they were awakened by a man in uniform, who informed them they had pitched their tent on a target range.

Jamison said he learned to write at Oxford under the patient tutelage of Dennis Parsons, his tutor—all Oxonians had one—who critiqued his weekly essays and became a lifelong friend.

"It was a sad day when I embarked for home, even though I hadn't seen my parents in two years," said Jamison, who, in 1957, was on his way to Harvard Medical School.

It was there that Jamison discovered an interest in nephrology, the branch of medicine concerned with the function and diseases of the kidney. Specifically, he was interested in the kidney's ability to make concentrated urine to conserve the water needed to dissolve toxins so they can be excreted from the body—a task critical to the health of all mammals.

"It's an arcane but fascinating field," said Jamison, who spent three years working in the Laboratory of Kidney and Electrolyte Metabolism at the National Heart Institute, followed by five years of teaching and research at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Jamison and his family—his wife, Dede, and their sons, then 5 and 6—arrived at Stanford in 1971, when he was hired as an associate professor of medicine, co-head of the nephrology division of the School of Medicine and chief of the nephrology division of Stanford University Hospital. His research continued, and over the years he published dozens of original papers focused on the kidney and how it functions.

Jamison left Stanford in the mid-1980s for a three-year stint as chairman and professor of medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in Rochester, N.Y.

He returned to Stanford in 1990, and two years later became a staff physician and director of the Dialysis Unit at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System, a teaching and research hospital staffed by Stanford. There, his research interests took a new turn.

"I was seeing lots of veterans with end-stage kidney disease," he recalled. "They have lots of heart attacks and strokes, and peripheral vascular diseases that damage the lining of their blood vessels. We haven't been able to do very much to prevent those problems from happening."

Jamison recently completed a six-year clinical trial that investigated whether giving patients high daily doses of folic acid and vitamins B6 and B12 would combat those heart problems. The study involved more than 2,000 veterans at three dozen VA hospitals.

The results, published in the Sept. 12 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, showed that the answer was no. The supplements did not improve their chances of survival or reduce the number of heart attacks or strokes, Jamison said.

"It was disappointing, especially given the 20 percent death rate for people with advanced kidney disease," he said, adding that three other clinical trials have come to the same conclusion. "It means we have to look elsewhere for a solution."

When the study ended this year, Jamison, who became emeritus in 2003, found he had some time on his hands. It was a casual conversation with longtime friend Edward "Ted" Harris, who retired as academic secretary last spring, that led to his new university post.

One day, just before grand rounds at Stanford Hospital, Harris, another professor emeritus of medicine, told Jamison the university was looking for a new academic secretary.

"Ted said, 'Hey, Rex, you'd be good for this,'" Jamison recalled. "'Do you mind if I throw your hat in the ring?'"

Jamison said the idea of retiring was not very appealing to him or, he added with a broad smile, very attractive to his wife, the Rev. Dede Jamison, an Episcopal deacon. He said preparing and running the VA study has been good preparation for the new job, which includes producing the minutes of Faculty Senate meetings. The minutes are published in both the print and online editions of Stanford Report.

"We had one-hour conference calls every week," he said. "I would take the minutes. I found it was a good way to remind people of what they said they would do."