Dean's Medals go to actress, scientist, oncologist and foundation

- By Ruthann Richter

The Dean's Medal, the medical school's highest honor, will be awarded Oct. 13 to a playwright/actress, two distinguished faculty members and a philanthropic foundation.

The recipients are Anna Deavere Smith, who has used her artistry to portray the challenges of U.S. health care; developmental biologist Lucy Shapiro, PhD, the Virginia and D. K. Ludwig Professor; radiation oncologist Sarah Donaldson, MD, the Catharine and Howard Avery Professor; and the Donald E. and Delia B. Baxter Foundation.

The medal honors individuals who have made scientific, medical, humanitarian, public service or other contributions that have significantly advanced the mission of the school.

Anna Deavere Smith

"We are so fortunate that the recipients of the 2012 Dean's Medal offer new meaning to how science shapes humanity and why Stanford Medicine unites medicine with compassion and communities, locally and globally," said Philip Pizzo, MD, dean of the medical school. "Dr. Shapiro's work exemplifies an artist's exploration of life — how its basic elements are formed and assembled, how they interconnect, take shape and function in multiple domains and dimensions. Her work is a testament to the beauty of basic science and how discovery can lead to insights in the human condition.

"Dr. Donaldson's work shows how fundamental physical energies can change the lives of children with cancer through discovery and compassion that has been extended to communities worldwide. The Baxter Foundation has not only provided seminal funding for innovative research at Stanford, but has also provided the human presence of its directors, who have become a beacon of hope and opportunity for students and faculty for more than five decades. And Smith is an artist who has connected the lives of individuals from different walks of life to give new voice and meaning to some of society's and medicine's most pressing dilemmas — doing so by connecting sobering facts with compassion, humanity and deep insight.

"While our winners have had different and discrete life journeys, they share a passion and commitment to science, medicine, compassion and humanism — and to making the world a better place," Pizzo said.

Smith is the creator of the acclaimed one-woman show, Let Me Down Easy, in which she adopts the personae of a diverse group of individuals to create a moving portrayal of human frailty amid a complex medical system. Among those featured in the show is Pizzo, who laments our cultural inability to confront issues of death and dying and to make these difficult issues part of the national health-care debate.

The recipient of a MacArthur "genius" award, Smith has been credited with creating a new form of theatre. NBC's Today Show called her one-woman production "truly brilliant and stunning," while Newsweek described her as "the most exciting individual in American theater."

Smith currently plays Gloria Akalitus on Showtime's hit series Nurse Jackie and is well-known for her role as national security advisor in the NBC series The West Wing. Her major film credits include The American President, Philadelphia and Rachel Getting Married. A former drama professor at Stanford, she teaches at New York University.

"Let Me Down Easy is written with an awareness of how society lets a lot of people down," Smith said. "I really wanted to say something about taking care of people. The fact that Dean Pizzo and his colleagues appreciate that really means a lot to me."

Lucy Shapiro

Shapiro is being recognized for her contributions to understanding the temporal and spatial organization of single-celled organisms. Her observations have revolutionized the field of developmental biology and identified new targets for anti-microbial drugs. She has recently been awarded the 2012 Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize by Columbia University, as well as the 2009 Canada Gairdner International Award, which is considered one of the most prestigious awards in biomedical science.

"I wanted to know how the genetic code, or DNA, that exists in one dimension, is somehow translated into organisms like you and me that occupy space in three dimensions," Shapiro wrote in an article announcing her Gairdner award. "How does this work? How are the cellular positions of proteins and nucleic acid polymers inherited? This fundamental question set out the whole research program that I'm working on to this day."

Shapiro hit upon the unusual idea of using a one-celled organism (an asymmetrically organized bacterium called Caulobacter) to investigate essential questions in developmental biology — formerly considered to be the purview of multi-celled organisms. "I found the simplest organism I could, and set out to learn how the multiple components of a living cell work together," she said.

Shapiro's work overturned the long-held belief that bacterial cells were simple bags of DNA and proteins. She found that the proteins that regulate the cell cycle in bacteria and animal cells are not structurally alike, yet there are striking similarities at the level of system design. Collaborating with Stephen Benkovic, PhD, at Penn State University, Shapiro designed a new class of boron-based drugs, the basis for two novel anti-infectives currently in phase-2 and phase-3 clinical trials. She credits the supportive environment at Stanford and her collaboration with Stanford physicist and professor of developmental biology (and her husband) Harley McAdams, PhD, for much of her success.

"I feel that I should turn this around and personally present this award to the School of Medicine for enabling the scientific revolution in basic science over the past 20 years and helping me to establish a working environment that fosters the training of outstanding students and postdoctoral fellows," Shapiro said.

Sarah Donaldson

Donaldson was recruited to Stanford in 1973 with the task of starting a pediatric cancer service. This effort has grown to become the Division of Pediatric Oncology at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital and the pediatric radiation oncology program in the Department of Radiation Oncology, which together have pioneered innovative treatments for children with malignant disease. Over the past four decades, Donaldson has become an internationally recognized authority in pediatric radiation oncology, advancing therapeutic approaches for pediatric Hodgkin's disease, childhood soft tissue and bone cancers, lymphomas of the eye and other disorders. She created a treatment program for kids with Hodgkin's disease using low-dose, involved-field radiotherapy and chemotherapy that today is the standard of care and results in a greater than 90 percent survival rate, without the long-term side effects of prior treatments.

"The greatest of all honors one can receive is to be recognized with an award from one's own professional family," Donaldson said. "Not only is it a wonderful honor to receive an award along with the Baxter Foundation, but it is also very special to be recognized with Lucy Shapiro and Anna Deavere Smith, women I admire immensely. This truly is the most significant and personally rewarding event of my professional life."

In addition to being chief of the Radiation Oncology Service at Packard Children's, she is a member of the Stanford Cancer Institute. Her numerous national awards and honors include gold medals from the American Society of Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology and the American College of Radiology. She is currently president-elect of the Radiology Society of North America.

Donald Haake

The Baxter Foundation was established in 1959 by Delia Baxter in honor of her late husband, Donald E. Baxter, MD, to advance charitable, scientific and educational purposes, primarily at medical and scientific schools of higher learning in California. The Baxter Foundation's grants to Stanford University have totaled more than $12 million over five decades. Early gifts helped Stanford's new medical campus grow by supporting research laboratories and new construction. The foundation not only endowed a professorship and a laboratory, but also continues to support promising young medical faculty, graduate students and medical students. The foundation also funded the first full scholarship at the School of Medicine.

Donald Baxter earned his medical degree from the University of Louisville in 1909. In World War I, he served as chief of the Bureau of Tuberculosis of the American Red Cross in France. A skilled engineer as well as a talented physician, he was then asked by the Rockefeller Foundation to serve as superintendent of construction at the Peking University Medical School in China. Having seen many patients die from dehydration while he was in China, Baxter, upon returning to the United States, developed and patented the first method of mass-producing and packaging sterile intravenous fluids, a medical advance that has saved innumerable lives.

Delia Baxter trained as a nurse and worked closely with her husband in managing the medical equipment company they founded, Don Baxter Inc. After his death in 1935, she continued as majority owner until 1951, when the company merged with American Hospital Supply, which in 1985 merged with a company Donald Baxter also co-founded, Baxter Laboratories Inc., now known as Baxter International.

Donald Haake, Baxter Foundation president, will receive the medal on the foundation's behalf. "It has been our privilege for over a half century to help fund the groundbreaking work that takes place at the School of Medicine, and we are honored to be receiving the Dean's Award," said Haake. "We have been given a glimpse into the world of hard work that goes into the making of 'medical miracles,' but our real joy has been in getting to know these superstars on a personal basis and following their astonishing careers. It is very humbling yet exhilarating to be in the company of the other recipients and to be honored by those at this university of whom we think so highly. Thank you."

Writers Krista Conger and Erin Digitale contributed to this report.

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit

2023 ISSUE 1

How social factors make or break us