MY WASHINGTON — Winter 2005


William T. Shearer, M.D. '70

On a Medical Mission

Alumnus William T. Shearer practices at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, yet he continues to serve Washington University and its School of Medicine.

William T. Shearer was referred to the Washington University School of Medicine by his postdoctoral mentor, Frank R.N. Gurd, H.S. ’57, professor of biochemistry at Indiana University. Earlier, Gurd had taken a sabbatical at Washington University while his wife, Ruth Gurd, M.D. ’57, was finishing her post-M.D. research with Paul Lacy, noted WUSTL pathologist and chair of the Department of Pathology. Gurd’s referral came when Shearer was halfway through a self-devised M.D./Ph.D. program, having completed his first year of medical school before entering graduate school at Wayne State University in Detroit where, subsequently, he earned a Ph.D. degree in 1966. From there he moved to Indiana University to follow up on immunochemical studies of pancreatic ribonuclease, one of the first proteins whose amino acid structure was discovered.

“I didn’t know much about Washington University, and at the time I was considering completing my medical studies at the Indiana University Medical School,” Shearer, M.D. ’70, says, “but Ruth Gurd very strongly encouraged me to apply to Washington University.” So Shearer came to St. Louis, where he met with Professor Lacy and the medical school’s registrar, William Parker. “Upon learning of my background in immunochemistry, Mr. Parker marched me over to the immunology laboratory of his son, Charles W. Parker (M.D. ’53), clearly one of the most intelligent and creative scientists I have ever met. Charles and his father made such an impression that I immediately decided to apply to the Washington University School of Medicine,” Shearer says. He was admitted as a second-year student in the Class of ’70. What he remembers most about that year was the opportunity to interact with premier, outstanding faculty, such as Professors Stuart Kornfeld, M.D. ’62, Philip Majerus, M.D. ’61, and Herman Eisen.

New adventures awaited Shearer as he was exposed to several areas of practice through clinical clerkships. Among his fondest memories are faculty members, such as James P. Keating, H.S. ’69, director of house staff training, and Philip R. Dodge, chair of pediatrics, who influenced his career and helped cement his connections with the School. “In medical school, I focused on immunology, but I was always interested in pediatrics”—an interest appropriate to someone with a growing family. Shearer has six adult children: a daughter and five sons.

After graduation Shearer merged clinical interests, first with a pediatrics residency at St. Louis Children’s Hospital (SLCH) under Dodge, then with a residency in allergy/immunology under Parker at Barnes Hospital and SLCH. Upon completion of resident training in 1974, Shearer joined the medical faculty as assistant professor of pediatrics and was promoted to associate professor in 1976. He was named a full professor in 1978. “I was very happy that Washington University took me on,” he says. “It was a marvelous experience, and I cherish the memories.”

In 1978, Shearer said goodbye to his winter gear and accepted a faculty position at Baylor College of Medicine (Baylor) in Houston, Texas, and was appointed to the medical staff of Texas Children’s Hospital (TCH). Later in 1978, he became professor of pediatrics, microbiology, and immunology and head of the Section of Allergy and Immunology in the Department of Pediatrics at Baylor; and chief of the Allergy and Immunology Service and Clinic at TCH, where he currently serves. Shearer is one of several alumni of the Washington University School of Medicine to hold prominent positions at TCH, including the late Russell J. Blattner, A.B. ’29, M.D. ’33, former physician-in-chief, and Ralph D. Feigin, H.S., current physician-in-chief.

Among Shearer’s career highlights, he was the physician to David Vetter, known as the “Bubble Boy.” In 1984, after David’s death at age 12, and in tribute to David’s memory, Shearer and Feigin co-founded the David Center at TCH, named for the boy who was born with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) and lived much of his life in plastic-bubble environments, engineered by NASA, to protect him from infection. “The lessons gleaned from David’s short life dramatically changed the outcome for others afflicted with SCID and milder forms of the disease,” Shearer says. The David Center, which Shearer directs, researches and treats all forms of immunodeficiency in children.

Shearer has continued expanding his efforts to understand and treat both congenital and acquired immune diseases. In 1991, he became medical director of Baylor’s Pediatric HIV/AIDS Research Center, which in September 2005 served as a treatment facility for special children evacuated from New Orleans in hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. In 1998, he was named team leader of NASA’s Immunology, Infection, and Hematology Project, which studies the effects of long-term space travel on the human immune system.

In addition to his teaching and research, Shearer is a highly respected and influential figure in national immunology organizations. He has helped set standards for the immunology curriculum and the practice parameters for diagnosing and treating immunodeficiency. He has been director and chair of the American Board of Allergy and Immunology; director of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology; and chair of the Academy’s Clinical and Laboratory Immunology Committee. In 2004, he received the Academy’s Special Recognition Award for editing the Primer on Allergic and Immunologic Diseases, 5th Edition. He has received many other awards and honors. As a member of the Clinical Immunology Society, he has served as its councilor and president.

Shearer’s involvement as an alumni volunteer for Washington University has followed a widening path, despite the time and energy demands of his professional career. Bill Stoll, associate vice chancellor for development, says: “Bill Shearer has played a major role in the University’s organizational and fundraising efforts in the Houston area. He is persuasive, proactive, and a leader by example.”

A supporter of the Annual Fund since graduating from the School of Medicine, in 1984 Shearer joined the William Greenleaf Eliot Society and began attending alumni and Eliot Society events in Houston. During the same year, he joined the Houston Network Cities Committee. In 1987, he became chair of the Houston Eliot Society Membership Committee until 1995, when he was appointed chair of the Houston Regional Cabinet, a position he still holds. He also is a member of the Medical Alumni Association Board and the Houston Eliot Society Committee, and he attends the medical school reunion every year.

In 1998–2004, Shearer chaired the Houston Regional Campaign of the Campaign for Washington University. He and his wife, Lynn Des Prez, administrative director, American Board of Allergy and Immunology, are sponsors of annual and endowed scholarships, annual members of the Danforth Circle, and Life Benefactors of the Eliot Society.

“I’m very proud to be able to give something back to Washington University,” Shearer says. “It’s a wonderful institution with great leadership, and it’s growing in achievement and reputation every year. I’m always impressed by the collaborative environment at the Medical Center, between the School of Medicine and the affiliated hospitals. There is an amazing unity of mission.”

Washington University’s rising stature correlates with the success of its graduates, the quality of its faculty, the strength and generosity of its support community, and word of mouth. It has a presence wherever its alumni and friends gather. In Houston, Texas, that presence is personified by Bill Shearer, a dedicated alumnus who attended the School of Medicine because of an enthusiastic recommendation from another graduate.

—John W. Hansford