UChicago Alumni Award for Professional Achievement Awarded to Dr. C. Noel Bairey Merz, AB’77

by Bill Sullivan, AB’90, Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute

On June 7, 2014, Dr. C. Noel Bairey Merz, AB'77, was presented an Alumni Award for Professional Achievement by the University of Chicago in a ceremony at the university. Dr. Bairey Merz graduated from the College of the University of Chicago with honors in 1977 before going on to Harvard Medical School, where she would also graduate with honors. Chicago Alumni Awards are among the most respected in the entire academic world. Prior recipients have included Nobel Prize winning scientists and other research pioneers; Supreme Court Justices and federal judges; presidential cabinet members and political leaders; leading journalists; federal judges; authors; humanitarians and business leaders. The distinction of the award is further highlighted by the greatness of the University, itself. Chicago faculty have been awarded 89 Nobel Prizes, including 10 to current faculty. Chicago is often credited with several landmark breakthroughs in the development of 20th Century civilization including the world’s first controlled nuclear chain reaction, which lead to nuclear energy and weapons; the invention of the rocket engine; pioneering work in the discovery of DNA; the first blood bank; the invention of supply side economics; the discovery of black holes in the universe; the Oriental Institute and early exploration of ancient Egypt, including King Tut and the Pyramids; and countless other breakthroughs.

In September of 2012, fellow Heart Institute colleague, Bill Sullivan, AB'90, also a graduate of the University of Chicago, began the very competitive nomination process for Dr. Bairey Merz. Working at home on his own time, Bill began by requesting letters of nomination from seven of Dr. Bairey Merz’s distinguished cardiology colleagues at hospitals and universities around the United States. Fellow researchers credit Dr. Bairey Merz for her work not just as a leader in research, but also as a mentor, using her cumulative expertise as both clinician and researcher to help chart answers to questions where no books are available, because no one has ever ventured in to many of the areas studied in women’s heart ever before. Because all prior studies have been male oriented, she has been forced to devise her own scientific method in the development of her research protocols. The respect that Dr. Bairey Merz has won from her colleagues around the world for her research has helped to make her a figure of historic accomplishments within her field. Other tributes were more lighthearted. One colleague noted in his letter, “I had the honor of studying in the same chemistry class as Noel…where all of us seem to recall that she raised the grading curve rather annoyingly.” After obtaining letters from colleagues of Dr. Bairey Merz, which included Heart Institute Director, Eduardo Marbán, Bill set about an exhaustive review of her CV; locating and viewing her media appearances on-line; reading her bio and self statement; and finally, writing his own five page letter of nomination in which Bill summarized major points addressed by her colleagues and added a statement of his own. Once completed, Bill submitted the entire nominations packet, including all eight letters and her CV, to the Alumni Board of Governors of the University for their consideration.

Here is an excerpt from Bill’s letter of nomination for Dr. Bairey Merz:

I nominate Dr. Bairey Merz because she has had a historic and global impact upon the field of cardiology for women. Prior to her pioneering career, a very limited body of knowledge existed in regards to women’s heart issues. The majority of studies had been devoted to men. Existing treatments for women were therefore designed based upon research for men, often resulting in missed opportunities for treatment for women, meaning that women’s lives that could have been saved were not. Recognizing from the very outset of her career that major opportunities for advancement in the realm of collective knowledge existed, Dr. Bairey Merz acted in the highest spirit and tradition of the University of Chicago. She thought outside of the realm of existing knowledge, identified new opportunities, and pioneered new pathways in order to reach them. Today, a generation after her efforts began, an entire new body of knowledge exists in relation to women’s heart health as a result of her life’s work. Millions of women from throughout the entire world now have a chance to survive and thrive because of the pioneering efforts of Dr. Bairey Merz…

• Dr. Bairey Merz has been awarded 60 major grants in order to conduct and participate in studies of women’s heart health… Her best known achievement is the landmark WISE study (Women’s Ischemia Syndrome Evaluation)…. And she is currently the only scientist to simultaneously hold three NIH RO1 grants at Cedars-Sinai where she researches and practices. As noted by Heart Institute Director Dr. Eduardo Marbán in his letter of nomination, “Ability to be consistently funded by the NIH is one the highest levels of scientific expertise recognition in the area of biomedical research.” Pioneering studies lead by Dr. Bairey Merz include ischemic arterial disease (blocked arteries) in women, the role of stress in heart disease, gender linked issues and stem cells. Men will also benefit from her research.

• Over 500 publications by Dr. Bairey Merz have proliferated the influence of her research to scientists around the globe…

• Media appearances number at least 264. Dr. Bairey Merz has published in Time, Newsweek, US News and World Report, Readers Digest, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and Women’s Home Journal. Television presentations include multiple appearances on Good Morning America and the ABC Network News. Other appearances include Dr. Oz and the Today Show…

• On line opportunities to hear Dr. Bairey Merz speak include her recent appearance on Katie Couric with Barbra Streisand, and her TedxTalk Videos including both herself and Barbra Streisand. All three videos, including Couric, are available on You Tube. Her Ted X talk has nearly 21,000 views and the Couric appearance has 12,000 views after just a few weeks. Each webcast can be viewed by typing “Noel Bairey Merz” in to the You Tube search engine.

In conclusion, Bill wrote:

Once in a generation, a pioneer enters a field of study and causes paradigms to be reconsidered, goals to be reassessed, methods to be redeveloped, and a body of knowledge to be redefined… If 52% of the human population is comprised of women, then over 150 million women in America and 3 billion women globally stand to benefit from the pioneering work in women’s heart health pursued by Dr. Noel Bairey Merz... I move that the Alumni Medal be awarded to Dr. Bairey Merz not merely in recognition of her and her work; nor in recognition of the University and its traditions; but in recognition of the many millions of women whose lives Dr. Bairey Merz will both touch and save in generations yet to come through her research, writing and mentoring of others. For Dr. Bairey Merz has become the champion and the voice of millions of women suffering from heart symptoms everywhere. And these women do and will owe many more seasons of their lives, and years with their families, to her pioneering work on their behalf. And as Dr. Bairey Merz is succeeding in a historic way, she is becoming a historic figure, herself...

After reviewing the nomination packet submitted by Bill, the Alumni Board of Governors confirmed the Award for Professional Achievement upon Dr. Bairey Merz. The ceremony began with a parade of alumni through the streets at the University, led by bagpipes, marching behind banners for each class celebrating a reunion. The processional then entered Rockefeller Memorial Chapel for the awards ceremony. Other honorees included United States Senator Bernie Sanders, AB'64 (I., Vermont); medical ethicist Leon Kass, LAB’54, SB’58, MD’62, who played a leading role in the stem cell debate in Washington during the second Bush Administration; Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, AB'90, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013; and Donald Steiner, MD’56, SM’56,a scientist who made ground breaking discoveries in the treatment of diabetes.

As Bill reflects upon the experience of nominating Dr. Bairey Merz, he now believes that Dr. Bairey Merz deserves a Nobel Prize for her work in pioneering medical research targeted for women. A Nobel Prize for the life’s work of Dr. Noel Bairey Merz would send a powerful statement across the entire world of medical research that studies for women in all areas of medicine could result in many more landmark breakthroughs, and lead to happier, healthier lives for the more than three billion women that inhabit this planet.

Above: a parade of alumni marching behind banners for each class celebrating a reunion is lead through the quadrangles en route to Rockefeller Memorial Chapel for the ceremony honoring Dr. Bairey Merz and fellow dignitaries. 


Above: Dr. Bairey Merz is awarded the Medal for Professional Achievement in Rockefeller Chapel.

Above: About the awards luncheon, Bill said:  I had the honor and pleasure of sitting next to Lynda Lopez and her mother. Lynda is a fourth year student in the college concentrating in the humanities. In addition to honoring Dr. Bairey Merz and her fellow dignitaries, the University also honored several current students with the Howell Murray Alumni Association Award. Lynda is wearing the award presented to her in honor of her work with Latino student organizations. Says Lynda, “The organizations that I work with strive to help Latino students feel that they have a sense of belonging, pride and a role at one of the world’s great universities.” For Dr. Bairey Merz and I, Lynda’s award struck home and touched our hearts. After thirty years in Los Angeles for each of us, our Latina colleagues, patients and neighbors have become our friends and our sisters.