At the Heart of Medicine: Teaching and Innovation
February 25, 2008 — Many a heart patient has been advised by his or her cardiologist to slow down, not work so hard, maybe take it a little easier. And while University of Virginia cardiologist Dr. George A. Beller may well dispense such advice to some of his patients, they are fortunate that he does not need to adhere to that counsel himself.
A U.Va. medical school graduate and acting head of the Cardiovascular Division, Dr. Beller helped to pioneer the field of nuclear cardiology and cardiovascular imaging, which has helped lead to the radical curtailment of fatalities from heart disease over the past 30 years. In addition, he spearheaded the effort to create within his division one of the most prestigious cardiology departments in the United States.
One would be hard-pressed to find a man who has accomplished more during the course of his professional career. Besides his aforementioned leadership role at the University, Dr. Beller has headed up the American College of Cardiology, guest-lectured at several hundred universities world-wide, authored more than 400 articles in peer-reviewed journals, co-wrote the definitive textbook on clinical nuclear cardiology, mentored a generation of cardiologists and edited the Journal of Nuclear Cardiology. He has also been instrumental in garnering funding for the Emily Couric Clinical Cancer Center, soon to be built in honor of his late wife, Emily, a widely-admired Virginia state senator whose efforts on behalf of health care initiatives are legendary.
Speaking of Dr. Beller’s contributions to the University, President John T. Casteen III said "George Beller stands out for his clinical and research leadership, the development of his department as a stand-out department recognized globally, his cultivation of younger medical faculty and a gentle hand combined with a firm resolve. When Dr. Beller decides that something is right, he makes it happen.”
The path to Virginia
An athletic child of parents who settled in New York after fleeing the Nazi invasion of Europe, Beller grew up in a household in which education and a love of the arts and culture were highly valued. He earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy with a minor in comparative literature from Dartmouth University and developed a lifelong love of skiing and the outdoors while in college.
Drawn to U.Va. because of the school’s distinguished honor system, Beller attended medical school and married and started a family here. He then went to Boston, Mass., for a fellowship in academic cardiology and remained there for nine years. During a stint in the U.S. Army, he continued his studies and research at Harvard University Medical School, as well as continuing his outpatient clinic at Boston City Hospital. He began teaching at Massachusetts General Hospital, working as an assistant professor and developing an interest in nuclear cardiology, which would become a lifelong interest.
One of Dr. Beller’s proudest accomplishments at U.Va. has been the collaborative research program that he and his colleagues developed in cardiac imaging. Countless lives have been saved thanks to that research . Someone who had a heart attack in the early 1970s faced a 25-30 percent death rate. Now the chance of death is less than five percent, thanks in large part to the types of imaging that help catch heart disease before it becomes advanced.
Beller as teacher & mentor
Doctors who have benefited from Dr. Beller’s support appreciated his mentorship. “George Beller has had an enormous influence on my career and has been wonderfully supportive in my development as a clinician-scientist and teacher. His wise council has been enormously helpful in navigating challenging situations,” said Dr. Ian J. Sarambock, MB, ChB, Md, Associate Director of The Heart & Vascular Center at The Christ Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Dr. Delos (Toby) Cosgrove, Beller’s longtime friend and medical school roommate, echoed that sentiment. Cosgrove, a cardiac surgeon who currently serves as president and chief executive officer of the Cleveland Clinic, said, “George is a valued friend and has an opinion on everything from personal life to medicine. He has brought enormous credit to the University of Virginia, both nationally and internationally.”
To Dr. Beller, it’s all part of the job.
“I love my work. I derive tremendous satisfaction from taking care of patients and engaging in research and discovery. I also enjoy teaching and interacting with young physicians who are in training and guiding them to acquire knowledge they need to become good physicians and cardiologists,” he said.
He has also helped to transform continuing education for cardiologists through “Cardiosource,” a Web site created by the American College of Cardiology that enables physicians to obtain up-to-date information and stay abreast of advances in the field.
To honor Dr. Beller’s 27 years as chief of cardiology (the second longest tenure of its kind in the country), Bristol Meyers Squibb Medical Imaging has established a Professorship in Cardiovascular Medicine in his name at the University. In addition, he received the prestigious University of Virginia Walter Reed Distinguished Achievement award.
Dr. Beller has pursued a lifelong interest in the arts. He has served as a board member for Live Arts, the Piedmont Council of the Arts, and the historic Paramount Theater. His other outside interests include skiing, hiking and traveling. He also enjoys spending time with his family – three children from his first marriage and two stepchildren from his second marriage, along with their spouses and children.
But despite his many extracurricular distractions, he has no intention of slowing down professionally. “As long as I feel satisfaction from what I’m doing, I don’t have any intentions to retire any time soon. Anything I can do to give back to the University, like helping with the Emily Couric Clinical Cancer Center project, or assisting in new initiatives that are being launched, I’ll do that. The school has meant a lot to me.”