John Rockett was nervous before meeting Bill Salzer, MD, a professor of clinical medicine and the director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the MU School of Medicine. The stories Rockett heard from other students portrayed Salzer as an “omnipotent being,” a brilliant man who could recite almost verbatim the key passages of journal articles written years before.
When Rockett spent time with Salzer, he found the hype about Salzer’s intelligence was accurate, but his true gift was translating the complicated science in his head into plain-spoken stories anyone could understand.
“He had this very characteristic way of talking that used a lot of layman terms instead of medical jargon, which was very helpful as a learner new to medicine,” said Rockett, who is now a fourth-year medical student. “For example, when going over an EKG, he would say something along the lines of, ‘Take a look at dem wiggly-jiggly bits right der. You see where dis part goes down first before coming up? Dat’s a Q wave and means he had a heart attack at some point.’ ”
Salzer died of cancer on Sept. 28, 2019, at the age of 68.
“I don’t think people realize what we’ve lost,” said Michael Hosokawa, EdD, the senior associate dean of education and faculty development. “We’ve really lost a giant here.”
Salzer joined the MU School of Medicine in 1992. He came from the Wake Forest School of Medicine, which used a patient-based learning curriculum, and he helped Hosokawa and MU’s curriculum design committee switch from a lecture-based system to PBL in 1993.
Hosokawa said he and Salzer developed a genially combative friendship.
“He was a nonconformist,” Hosokawa said. “He had little or no patience with rules and policies. To my knowledge, he never got his course outline to us in time to publish it ahead of time. It was always published in parts when he got around to it. But he was one of the most likable people I knew. There were times he was a thorn in my side, but I had tremendous respect for him.”
In 2018, Salzer won the Jane Hickman Teaching Award, the highest honor MU bestows in medical education. In July 2019, the Infectious Diseases Society of America honored Salzer with its Clinical Teacher Award, which recognizes people who have dedicated their lives to teaching fellows, residents and medical students about infectious diseases. Salzer focused much of his career on the treatment of HIV-positive and AIDS patients, establishing one of the earliest HIV clinics in America, which continues to this day. He served on the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network board and was the regional medical director of the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program.
“Students and faculty held him in reverence for his intelligence, knowledge, work ethic, quick wit and ability to tell the unvarnished truth as he saw it,” said Stephen Halenda, PhD, associate professor of medical pharmacology and physiology and the faculty director of pre-clerkship curriculum. “A tireless worker to the end, he never gave up, even when those who loved him encouraged him to get some rest. Bill’s memory will live on as an inspiration for medical educators.”
Salzer is survived by his wife, Sue, his daughter, Lily, and three stepchildren, John France, Max France and Hallie France. His memory lives on with a generation of former students. In 2011, students created a Facebook group called The Bill Salzer Historical Society as a forum to share their favorite stories about him. It has more than 700 members.
“He loved to watch sports, hated rules, red tape, discussions about money and was extraordinarily irreverent regarding most things in life, with the exception of his great calling — medicine,” said Stevan Whitt, MD ’94, associate professor of clinical medicine and MU Health Care’s chief medical officer. “He had a virtual cult of followers, which I do not think he knew about, and he will be missed by hundreds of his former students, trainees, colleagues and friends like me.”
Rockett said it was hard for him to explain how important Salzer was to him, but what he felt when he walked away from their first day together has stuck with him.
“I was left thinking, ‘I don’t know who that guy was or how he was able to remember all that stuff in such detail, but, man, his patients love him and he was a great teacher and the residents liked him a lot,’ ” Rockett said. “I hope that I can be just like him when I’m a doctor.”