Former Stanford School of Medicine dean David Korn dies at 91

David Korn devoted nearly 30 years to Stanford Medicine as chair of pathology and dean of the medical school, overseeing the rise to national prominence amid tumultuous and historic change.

- By Krista Conger

David Korn

David Korn, MD, emeritus professor of pathology, former dean of the Stanford School of Medicine and a former vice president for medical affairs of Stanford University, died at 91 on March 10 in Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. At the time of his death, he was an emeritus professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School and a former vice provost for research at Harvard University.

Korn was recruited to Stanford Medicine in 1968 to shore up a skeleton pathology department floundering in the wake of the medical school’s 1959 move from San Francisco to Palo Alto. For nearly 30 years he was a tireless proponent of research and clinical excellence at Stanford Medicine, negotiating for the people, resources and ideals he felt necessary to support and grow first the pathology department and then the school.

As dean of the medical school — a position he assumed reluctantly in 1984 — Korn recalled appointing 23 of a total of 26 department chairs, prioritizing the advancement of highly qualified women and minority candidates within a strict framework of meritocracy. During his tenure he oversaw the creation of the Stanford Blood Center, the construction of the Beckman Center for Molecular and Genetic Medicine, and a state-of-the-art animal care facility. As vice president, he helped Stanford University weather the fallout of the indirect costs dispute between Stanford and the United States government in the early ’90s and spearheaded financial structures and relationships within and between the medical school and the university.

Although his outspoken opposition to the short-lived merger between the medical centers at Stanford and the University of California, San Francisco, resulted in his departure from Stanford in 1995, his legacy lives on.

“David Korn’s impact on the medical school is difficult to overstate,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the school of medicine and vice president for medical affairs at Stanford University. “His vision, determination and leadership helped cement Stanford Medicine’s place as a world leader among academic medical centers and painted a picture of excellence we follow to this day.”

Pushing pathology to prominence

As chair of pathology, Korn clarified the department’s relationship with the hospital and the Palo Alto Medical Clinic (now the Palo Alto Medical Foundation) and set about recruiting the best and brightest researchers and clinicians from across the country. His efforts catapulted the Stanford pathology department onto the national stage.

“David created what we think of as the modern department of pathology at Stanford essentially from scratch,” said Stephen Galli, MD, former chair of the department of pathology, the Mary Hewitt Loveless, MD, Professor in the School of Medicine, and a professor of pathology and of microbiology and immunology. “That was no easy task. But our position today as one of the best, if not the best, pathology departments in the country reflects David’s belief in what pathology at Stanford could become. He was an extraordinary figure.”

Prior to his deanship, Korn was a productive researcher focused on identifying and studying proteins called polymerases that are responsible for mammalian DNA replication. He often referred to his time at Stanford Medicine, during which he also served as the chair of the National Cancer Advisory Board, as “12 by 7 by 52,” in reference to the number of hours per day, days per week and weeks per year he devoted to the job.

David Korn with a colleague in the pathology lab.  
Stanford Medical History Center

Upon leaving Stanford Medicine, Korn became a driving force at the Association of American Medical Colleges, where he dove deeply into documenting the financial structures and pressures on medical schools across the country. He also became increasingly involved on a national level in science policy to mitigate conflicts of interest in research and medicine.

“We once met with Al Gore, who was then the chairman of the House Science Committee’s subcommittee on oversight and investigations,” said Korn’s wife, Carol Scheman, a former deputy commissioner at the Food and Drug Administration. “He told us that, in his mind, a university’s greatest value to society was as an independent arbiter of knowledge. David took that very much to heart, and science policy became a large part of his life.”

Korn’s colleagues and family remember him as a thoughtful and outspoken leader, a driven performer, and a man who cherished time with his many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He was an avid bodysurfer in the waves off the Connecticut coastline, noting that as long as he was moving he could stave off the seasickness that plagued him on boats. He was a devoted daily reader of The New York Times and The Boston Globe, biking each morning from his home into Stonington, Connecticut, to collect the latest issues. He loved the symphony and the opera, contemporary art, and long walks along the beach or through the streets of Washington, D.C., with friends and colleagues with whom he could discuss science policy.

“David had a great belief in personal and institutional integrity,” said Arthur Bienenstock, PhD, a longtime friend, emeritus professor of photon science, and former vice provost and dean of research at Stanford University. “He had strong beliefs, and he stood up for them. We enjoyed discussions where we had different points of view and worked to find common ground. In particular, he recognized the importance of thoughtful conflict-of-interest policies to protect the scientific record and the interests of universities and to advance our national economy and our health.”

Arriving at Stanford

Korn was recruited to Stanford Medicine from the National Institutes of Health to chair the pathology department by then-dean Robert Glaser, MD, via a Saturday evening phone call in 1967. Glaser’s proposal was one many of Korn’s colleagues advised he ignore. The existing pathology department was hamstrung, Korn later recounted, by lax hiring practices, a complicated clinical relationship with the Palo Alto Medical Clinic and an awkward governance structure for what was then the Palo Alto-Stanford Hospital. 

Korn made his acceptance of the position contingent upon a renegotiation between Stanford University and the town of Palo Alto that consolidated the pathology clinical services under one academic umbrella. After that was accomplished — a pact that allowed the university to purchase the hospital and change its name to Stanford University Hospital — Korn realized the department faced two major challenges: a surgical staff concerned that the move to Palo Alto overemphasized basic research over clinical excellence and patient care, and a dearth of pathologists interested in the basic research necessary to remain at the forefront of the molecular biology revolution launched at the end of World War II.

David Korn at a Stanford School of Medicine celebration in June 1985.
Stanford Medical History Center

Korn’s first move was to recruit up-and-coming surgical pathologists Ronald Dorfman, MBBCh, FRCPath, and Richard Kempson, MD, from Washington University in St. Louis to support the surgeons at the hospital and alleviate concerns about the department’s dedication to excellent clinical service. Next, Korn recruited South African Errol Friedberg, who had developed a strong research program on the repair of damaged DNA, and offered a faculty position to a young Stanford medical school graduate interested in the development and maturation of the mammalian cellular immune system named Irving Weissman, MD. Klaus Bench, MD, with whom Korn had collaborated in medical school and who had an active research program in electron microscopy, was offered the only full professorship available, and a young postdoctoral scholar studying new-found mitochondrial DNA replication and disease, David Clayton, PhD, rounded out the early arrivals. Clayton’s focus on basic research and lack of a medical degree at first raised some eyebrows.

“For the first time I was questioned by the dean about ‘the relevance of this appointment to the pathology program,’” Korn noted in a 2012 article in the Annual Review of Pathology: Mechanisms of Disease describing the formation of the department.

The infusion of new energy and ideas into the pathology department spurred the acquisition of highly competitive trainees, many of whom held both medical and doctorate degrees. The department also became active in Stanford Medicine’s medical science training program — a joint MD-PhD program for exceptionally promising graduate students that Clayton directed for two decades. In the ’70s, Korn established both the Laboratory of Experimental Oncology and launched a new PhD-granting program in tumor biology, now known as the Cancer Biology Program.

Medical school dean

In 1984, Korn agreed to become dean of the medical school — a decision he made reluctantly as the time demands inevitably spelled the end of his research career. Because the pathology department was unique among most other departments in straddling clinical care and basic research into the molecular causes of disease, Korn had insight into and interacted with nearly every department.

One of his first actions was to draft a letter to the chairs of every department, asking them to develop a strategic plan; a wish list of physical, financial and personnel resources; and an explanation as to where they thought their discipline could excel with proper support. “These provided us with very valuable insight into where our opportunities were, discipline by discipline, sub-discipline by sub-discipline, and what the resource needs would be to seize some of these opportunities and make them real,” Korn recalled in an oral history recorded by Stanford University in 2012 in which he reflected on his life and career. These documents served as blueprints for future financial investments and faculty recruitments, of which there were many, including Mary Lake Polan, MD, PhD, for obstetrics and gynecology; Linda Shortliffe, MD, for urology; Lucy Shapiro, PhD, for developmental biology; and Linda Cork, DVM, PhD, for a new department in comparative, or veterinary, medicine that Korn created.

“I thought it was important to get rid of this all-white-male executive committee that was typical of most academic medical centers,” Korn said. “When I left there were either six or seven women chairs,” noting that prior to his deanship there had never been a female chair in the medical school. 

“He was enormously proud of having named more women chairs,” Korn’s wife, Scheman, said. “That meant a lot to him. He came to feminism on his own, after growing up with a generation of white men. He was someone who understood merit and how diversity could help the university.”

Korn also championed the support of minority students — forming a minority student leadership council with which he met regularly and launching a visiting minority speaker event to give students role models who played important roles in public health or medicine.

Korn also instituted term limits for department chairs and the formation of visiting committees made up of national leaders in each department’s field to assess their strengths and weaknesses as a way to formalize the replacement of chairs and minimize transitional upheaval. With then senior associate vice president for finance and administration David Mendelow, he devised a way to sequester the medical school’s revenue from the Cohen-Boyer patent on recombinant DNA technology into a building fund to use as collateral for loans to support the building of the Beckman Center for Molecular and Genetic Medicine, which opened in 1989. Korn also orchestrated the construction of state-of-the-art animal care facilities underground near the Beckman Center and Fairchild auditorium.

He was enormously proud of having named more women chairs. He was someone who understood merit and how diversity could help the university.

In 1987, Korn initiated an agreement between Stanford Medicine, UCSF and Pacific Presbyterian Medical Center that resulted in the California Transplant Donor Network, of which Korn was a founding member.

“The idea was to create something that did exist around some of the major transplant centers in the United States, but did not exist in Northern California at all,” Korn said, describing a nonprofit organization to promote organ transplantation and allocation on a regionally established priority basis — first for kidney and then for liver, pancreas and intestinal transplants.

The rise in managed health care in the mid-1990s sparked discussions between Stanford Medicine and UCSF about merging their medical centers to weather the financial fallout. Korn was an outspoken critic of the idea, citing the difficulties of bringing together two geographically distant institutions — one public and one private — with vastly different cultures and patient bases. In his oral history recorded by Stanford University in 2012, he recalled how he was “absolutely convinced it would be costly in money and in human spirit, a disaster.” When it became clear the merger would proceed, Korn agreed to step down as dean in March 1995.

Post Stanford

When Korn left Stanford, he went to the Association of American Medical Colleges where he co-wrote a report called The Financing of Medical Schools, a comprehensive look at what Korn called the financial anatomy of medical schools across the country that detailed the reliance of academic research institutions on sponsored research. “This report became almost biblical in its appeal to the medical school community, to the deans, and to the outside entities such as the NIH that really didn’t have a clue of how medical schools were funded,” Korn said. From 1997 to 2008, Korn served as first senior vice president of biomedical research and then as chief scientific officer for AAMC, helping the organization and the academic medical community navigate financial conflicts of interest. 

In 2008, Korn accepted an appointment as a professor at Harvard Medical School and the university’s vice provost for research, where he convened a university-wide committee to review existing policies on research conduct and to facilitate interactions with industry and private and government organizations involved in academic research. He guarded the reputation and integrity of the institution and promoted public trust in scientific research.  

Despite his many administrative duties and accomplishments, Korn prioritized his interactions with medical students.

“David always identified primarily as a scientist, even though he in a lot of ways had to leave that behind,” Scheman said. “Throughout his life he loved being a mentor, speaking and being with students, colleagues and administrative staff. He loved talking about their concerns and what they were working on. One colleague recently wrote to me that although she was at first intimidated by his intellect and accomplishments, she soon began to appreciate his wit and kindness.”

In his 2012 oral history, Korn called out two memorable recognitions, both from students at Stanford Medicine. One was a plaque given to him by a minority student group he founded, thanking him for his efforts to create a vibrant minority community. The other was from the medical student governance, thanking him for his work in making the medical school a center of academic and clinical excellence.

“Those are two plaques that I treasure,” Korn said, noting that they were two of only a select few of his many accolades that held pride of place on his Connecticut office wall. The president of the student body and the president of the minority student group both spoke at his farewell reception in June 1995. “I actually hugged both the students,” Korn recalled. “I hope I didn’t offend them. I was so happy, elated and proud.”

David Korn was born in Providence, Rhode Island, where he attended Classical High School. After graduating from Harvard College and Medical School, he became a clinical and research pathologist at the NIH.

Among his many leadership positions in science and medicine, he was a member of the National Academy of Medicine, an American Association for the Advancement of Science fellow, a founder of the California Transplant Donor Network, and a presidential appointee as chair of the National Cancer Advisory Board. His subsequent career included chief scientific officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges and vice provost for research at Harvard.

He is survived by his wife, Carol Scheman; his ex-wife Phoebe Richter Korn; his sons, Michael Korn, Stephen Korn and Daniel Korn; his stepdaughters, Rebecca Fiduccia and Joanna Fiduccia; 11 grandchildren; and 21 great-grandchildren.

Memorial contributions in his honor may be made to the Providence Classical High School Alumni Association, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts or Temple Emanu-El.

About Stanford Medicine

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