James T. Willerson, M.D.

November 16, 1939September 16, 2020
Obituary of James T. Willerson, M.D.
On Wednesday, the 16th of September 2020, a void was left in the world of cardiovascular medicine with the passing of Dr. James T. Willerson from cancer. Born in Lampasas, Texas in 1939 to Dr. Darrell Willerson, general practitioner, and Dr. Eleanor Townsend Willerson, anesthesiologist, the family moved to San Antonio, Texas when Dr. Willerson was two years old. There Dr. Willerson attended the San Antonio Academy, and then the Texas Military Institute (TMI) from 1953-1957. His drive for excellence and leadership skills were evident as in his senior year at TMI, he was President of the senior class, Editor of the school newspaper, the battalion commander, and a state swimming champion. He won five first-place medals in the private school state swimming championship meet. That same year, he competed in the Texas Public School Swimming Championship Meet where he won second place in the two-hundred-yard free-style. Subsequently, he was recruited to attend The University of Texas at Austin on a swimming scholarship. Dr. Willerson was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of The University of Texas at Austin where he was a four-year swimming letterman and recognized in his senior year as the student athlete with the highest grade-point average. He was a member of the Phi Gamma Delta Fraternity and of the Texas Cowboys at Austin. Dr. Willerson was an AOA graduate of Baylor College of Medicine. He received his postgraduate training at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston. Dr. Willerson was the President Emeritus, Director of Cardiology Research, and Co-Director of the Cullen Cardiovascular Research Laboratories at the Texas Heart® Institute (THI) at CHI St. Luke’s Health-Baylor St. Luke’s at the time of his death. Dr. Willerson served as President of The University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston from 2001-2008, and the “Alkek Distinguished Chair.” During that time, he raised the financial support to build eight new educational and research buildings and recruit many outstanding students and faculty. As one of the longest-serving Editor-in-Chiefs of “Circulation,” a prestigious journal of the American Heart Association, his tenure lasted 11 years. In addition to having served on numerous editorial boards for professional publications, he edited or co-edited 27 textbooks, including his signature textbook, the Third Edition of Cardiovascular Medicine, released in February 2007. He published more than 1,030 scientific articles in major scientific journals. For Dr. Willerson, patients always came first. With a practice of more than 3,000, he saw patients daily until shortly before his passing, despite the Covid-19 virus. His ability to correctly diagnose and treat patients was widely known. Every patient of Dr. Willerson felt as though they were his top priority, a friend, and knew they were in the very best of hands. His research concentrated on the detection and treatment of unstable atherosclerotic plaques, and the discovery of the genes and abnormal proteins responsible for cardiovascular disease. In addition, Dr. Willerson and his colleague, Dr. Emerson Perin, were directly involved in seminal research in the use of stem cells for the repair of hearts and cardiovascular vessels injured by heart attacks, and they were responsible for major discoveries, landmark publications, and for Texas Heart Institute's being awarded the first FDA-approved clinical trial in the use of adult, human stem cells to treat ischemic cardiomyopathies and congestive heart failure in humans in the United States. He worked closely with Dr. James Martin and his heart cell renewal team at THI to show that the human heart has a “stop growth” pathway that inhibits its further growth and repair and when that stop growth pathway is inhibited, human and animal hearts can regenerate areas of injury by stimulating existing heart cells to proliferate and repair the heart. As a result of discoveries in his research, Dr. Willerson was awarded 15 patents. He co-founded four Bio-Technology start-up companies in cardiovascular medicine translating his team’s discoveries into clinical practice. Dr. Willerson was a proud and loving father and is survived by two daughters, Sara Willerson and Dr. Amy Willerson; Sara’s partner, Brian Wood, and Amy’s husband, Christopher Suerth; three grandchildren, James, Grace, and Thomas Suerth; his former wife, Nancy Beamer Willerson, to whom he was married for 43 years; his brother, Dr. Darrell Willerson, Jr. and his wife Susie DeSanders Willerson, of San Antonio; Walter Driver, Jr. of Atlanta, Georgia, husband of Dr. Willerson’s beloved deceased sister, Bettie Willerson Driver. He is also survived by five cousins, Eleanor Petty and her husband Scott, and Diana Morehouse of San Antonio; Bill Blair, Anne Collier, and Ricky Blair of Dallas; three nephews, Trey Willerson of Houston, Jim Willerson of San Antonio, and Walter Driver III of California; and two nieces, Eleanor Driver Post and Anna Driver Wick of Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. Willerson was very appreciative of the dedicated help of Ms. Suzy Lanier, Editor and Executive Assistant to him for over 22 years; Ms. Mae Thomas, dedicated nurse and clinical assistant to him in the THI clinic for 20 years; Mrs. Marcia Strauss, dedicated Executive Assistant to him for more than 9 years; Dr. Amany Ahmed, Scribe and Clinical Assistant to him for more than 12 years; and Mr. Wally Daou, friend and close personal assistant for more than seven years. He was very grateful to his many friends such as Dr. O.H. Frazier and Dr. John Stroehlen, The University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas System, the Baylor College of Medicine, the San Antonio Academy, and The Texas Military Institute in San Antonio, and his many students, and patients for their caring and dedicated support. He was grateful for the many years of financial research support from the American Heart Association and the National, Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute in Bethesda, and to Ms. Janice McNatt and Ms. Judy Ober for assisting him for more than 20 years each as research technicians. His family is grateful for the support and care provided by Dr. Jay Davis of the River Oaks Doctor’s Group and Concierge Clinicians of Houston, led by Danielle Riley with Sharon Cherry, Cindy Watson, Eunice Jackson, Jane Collins, Colton Grissett, Daniel Guerrero, and Adeja Giles. Dr. Willerson’s accolades and awards were numerous. He received the Distinguished Alumnus Award of the Baylor College of Medicine in 1998 and the Distinguished Alumnus Award of The University of Texas in 1999. He was the “Edward Randall III Chairman and Professor of Internal Medicine” at The UT Medical School at Houston from 1989-2000. He held the “Dunn Chair in Cardiology Research” at THI, the “Willerson/O'Quinn Chair at THI,” and he was the initial holder of the “James T. Willerson, MD Distinguished Chair in Cardiovascular Diseases” at UT Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. He had a swimming scholarship named in his honor at The University of Texas at Austin. More recently, a center at the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin was named “The James T. Willerson Center for Cardiovascular Modeling and Simulation (WCCMS).” Dr. Willerson served as visiting professor and invited lecturer at more than 260 institutions worldwide. Included in his many awards were the "James B. Herrick Award" from the American Heart Association in 1993; the American College of Cardiology's Distinguished Scientist Award in 2000; the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Scientific Councils of the AHA in 2002; and the AHA's Distinguished Scientist Award in 2003. He was the recipient of the Gold Heart Award, the AHA's highest award, in April 2005. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine of the United Kingdom and made an Honorary Member of 10 foreign Societies of Cardiology. He was a member and past President of the Paul Dudley White Cardiology Society at HMS and MGH. In June 2004, Dr. Willerson received the Medal of Merit for Distinguished Achievements in Cardiovascular Sciences by the International Academy of Cardiovascular Sciences. In 2005, he received the "Lifetime Achievement Award" presented at the 17th Annual Transcatheter Cardiovascular Therapeutics Scientific Symposium (TCT) on behalf of the Cardiovascular Research Foundation in Washington, DC. In 2006, Dr. Willerson received the Libin Award in cardiovascular research in Alberta, Canada; the "Living Legend Award" for achievement in cardiovascular research from the 16th World Congress of the World Society of Cardiothoracic Surgeons in Ottawa, Canada; and the "Most Outstanding Cardiologist, 2006" award from the Cardiovascular Society and Medical School of Shanghai, China. He also received the “Katz Research Prize” from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York City, New York, in 2007. Dr. Willerson was elected President of the International Society for Cardiovascular Sciences based in Winnipeg, Canada, and served from 2011-2014. He was a member of the National Academy of Medicine. From 2009-2010, he served as President of the Board of the American Heart Association, Houston Chapter. “The James T. Willerson Distinguished Chair in Cardiovascular Medicine” was named in his honor at the Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Diseases (IMM) which he created with the help of many generous friends at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston in 2009. The entering hall into the IMM is named “The James T. Willerson Hall of Discovery.” He served on the Chancellor’s Council Executive Committee of The University of Texas from 2009 until his death. In September of 2009, he received the “Ray C. Fish Award” from Texas Heart Institute given to "An individual whose endeavors have made significant contributions to cardiovascular medicine or surgery." In 2010, Dr. Willerson was the recipient of the “Special Achievement Award in Life Sciences” from the Houston Technology Center. In 2012, he received both the “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi, India and the “Distinguished Services Award” from Amity University, Uttar Pradesh, India. The University of Cadiz in Cadiz, Spain presented Dr. Willerson with an Honorary Doctoral Degree in 2012. In 2013, he was honored by the Texas Heart Institute and the Texas Medical Center by having the weekly cardiovascular seminar series named, “The James T. Willerson, MD Cardiovascular Research Lecture Series.” He was named Chair of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Trans-Atlantic Network of Excellence of the Leducq Foundation in 2014. In October of 2016, Mayor Sylvester Turner named a day the “James T. Willerson Day in Houston” and he and the Senate of the Texas Legislature issued proclamations thanking Dr. Willerson for all he had done for Houston and Texas. A celebration of life service honoring his life will be conducted at eleven o’clock in the morning on Saturday, the 10th of October, at the Church of St John the Divine, 2450 River Oaks Boulevard in Houston. KINDLY NOTE: due to the COVID-19 safety protocols in place at St. John the Divine, attendance is limited to 100 guests. The family highly recommends viewing the service via livestream at, or by clicking "Join Livestream. Prior to the service, the family will have gathered for a private interment. In lieu of customary remembrances, the family requests with gratitude that memorial contributions in Dr. Willerson’s memory be directed to the James T. Willerson Center for Cardiovascular Modeling and Simulation at The University of Texas at Austin, The Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Disease (IMM) at UT Health Houston, The University of Texas at Austin Swimming Team, Phi Gamma Delta fraternity at U.T. Austin, the Texas Heart Institute, or to The Church of St. John the Divine in Houston. “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Matthew 25:23

Show your support


  • James T. Willerson Center for Cardiovascular Modeling and Simulation at The University of Texas at Austin
  • The Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Disease (IMM) at UT Health Houston
  • The University of Texas at Austin Swimming Team
  • Phi Gamma Delta fraternity at U.T. Austin
  • The Texas Heart Institute 6770 Bertner Ave., Houston, TX 77030
  • The Church of St. John the Divine 2450 River Oaks Blvd., Houston, TX 77019

Past Services

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Memorial Service