An Interview with W. Bruce Fye, MD, MA

By Julie Mhlaba, MS4

Fye Photo_0.jpgW. Bruce Fye, MD, MA is a renowned medical historian and the author of several books on the history of medicine. Dr. Fye received both his undergraduate and medical degrees from Johns Hopkins University. He then completed his internal medicine residency training at New York Hospital – Cornell Medical Center and returned to Johns Hopkins for his cardiology fellowship. Following his fellowship, Dr. Fye participated in the Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program and received an MA in Medical History. He served as the President of the American College of Cardiology (ACC) in 2002, and has written several books; his accomplishments led him to be selected as one of only 15 individuals elected to the Johns Hopkins Society of Scholars. In early March, while he was on campus as our Alpha Omega Alpha Visiting Professor, Dr. Fye sat down with me to discuss his fascinating career.

What does a typical week look like for you?

I was really fortunate that, for the last ten years that I was on the cardiology faculty at Mayo, almost half of my time was devoted to medical history. It really was a hybrid career. Of my time spent practicing cardiology, two-thirds was in echocardiography and one-third was seeing patients in the valve clinic. I also spent 4-6 weeks as an attending on an inpatient cardiology service. During my medical history time, I worked from home where I had my library of books. I would get up around 5:30 am and would be working on my research by 6:00 am. When I retired, I finished up the book, [Caring for the Heart: Mayo Clinic and the Rise of Specialization]. I really wanted it to be good, so I was always looking for a better sound bite or a better example. I was reading everything I could possible find to add another story. When the book was finished, I began to organize the collection of books that I had amassed. In 2015, we gave Mayo about 3,500 books.  

Do you have any collections besides books?

Beyond my passion for books, I’m very interested in prints and engravings related to medicine. Most of them are from the 19th century, but some are from 15th, 16th and 17th century. One particular interest is engraved portraits. My wife and I spent Christmas in Paris—I realized that as much fun as I was having, I was very excited to get home and start organizing my collection!

Tell me about the Center for the History of Medicine.

Mayo clinic really values its history. The Center is located in the building that housed the Mayo brothers’ offices and the Board of Governors room. In the past, the library had been more of an internal library. I do take pride in the fact that, with help from the staff, we have been able to change that philosophy. It’s fun to see the implication of this; people can use this material. That’s what it’s about.

While you were the president of the ACC, what were some of the issues you focused on?

One of the biggest issues in the Clinton Health Plan of 1993 was that there were too many specialists and not enough generalists. The number of first year fellowship positions between 1994 and 2000 fell by 28% in response to this notion. In addition, managed care had a “gatekeeper” model, which prevented patients from seeing a cardiologist unless a primary care physician had signed off. Accordingly, competition in cardiology increased. As the head of cardiology at Marshfield Clinic, I tried to recruit cardiologists to this small town and had a lot of trouble. I wanted to do a study on workforce and convince everybody that we were, in fact, not producing enough cardiologists.

I also had the opportunity to write monthly editorials. One of them was titled, “Women Cardiologists: Why so few?” It talked about the “macho” image of cardiology and the difficulty of balancing certain subspecialties with the demands of family life. It was important to me to raise the visibility of the problem.