Remembering Physician-Educator Dr. Bill Speck

April 4, 2024
photo of Dr. Bill T. Speck

William (Bill) T. Speck, MD

William T. Speck, MD, who died on March 30 at age 83, had an extraordinary career: he was a division chief and department chair, president and CEO, teacher, and mentor. Dr. Speck’s two guiding passions were the care and welfare of babies, children, and young adults; and the commitment to provide excellent training opportunities to the young physicians entering the specialty of pediatric medicine.

Among his most important legacies is his impact on several generations of doctors who trained as his residents: At one point 22 of the chairmen in pediatrics departments around the country had served as his residents, as had a hundred or so subspecialty division chiefs. These physicians clearly absorbed one of the central lessons Dr. Speck passed on throughout his teaching career: pediatricians have a responsibility to become leaders in the field so that they can affect the care of not only their own patients, but those outside their practice, and of children in general.

The Department of Pediatrics in the Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons benefited from three phases of Dr. Speck’s career. In the first, Bill was an intern, resident, and chief resident, staying on as a fellow to further his training in infectious diseases. He subsequently joined the faculty as an assistant professor, with joint academic appointments in Pediatrics and Microbiology. Dr. Richard Polin remembers that as a chief resident Bill could be found at all hours of the day and night roaming the halls of Babies Hospital checking in on the interns and residents he oversaw and quizzing them on the latest pediatric publications.

In 1977 Dr. Speck relocated to Cleveland to join the Department of Pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine as an associate professor, chief of infectious diseases, and director of the pediatric residency program at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital. Five years later he was promoted to professor and chair of the Department of Pediatrics, a position he held for ten years.

From left, Drs. Lawrence Stanberry, Bill Speck, Richard Polin, and Lee Goldman (Dean Emeritus, VP&S) at the Speck Professorship celebration in 2014

The second phase of Bill’s career at Columbia began in 1992 when he returned to the faculty as a professor of clinical pediatrics and assumed leadership as CEO of the Presbyterian Hospital. Bill created the ambulatory care network (ACN), moving the outpatient clinics out of the ivory tower and putting them in the neighborhood. He also envisioned and advocated for a modern freestanding children’s hospital that could provide outstanding care to children with complex medical and surgical disorders. That dream was realized with the construction of the Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, the top ranked children’s hospital in New York. As CEO, he successfully lobbied for the merger of Presbyterian Hospital with New York Hospital to form NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, the largest provider of pediatric care in New York City.

The third phase of Dr. Speck’s Columbia career began in 2008 when he returned to the Department of Pediatrics after six years as director of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Dr. Lawrence Stanberry, who was department chair at that time, arranged for Bill’s appointment as professor of clinical pediatrics and asked him to engage with the resident training program. Bill actively participated in the residents’ daily educational activities including teaching conferences and morning reports. In 2011, the graduating pediatric residents recognized Dr. Speck for his commitment to housestaff education. Dr. Stanberry recalls how Bill religiously attended the chief of service and grand rounds lectures, generally seated next to his life-long friend Dr. Richard Polin.

The culmination of his contributions to Columbia was the establishment of the William T. Speck M.D. Professorship of Pediatrics, earmarked for an accomplished senior faculty member with an outstanding record of commitment to pediatric resident education. Bill was very pleased when Dr. Polin was selected to serve as the inaugural holder of the Speck Professorship.