UNM School of Medicine

"De Dean Says"

Leonard M. Napolitano, PhD

Dean of the UNM School of Medicine 1972-1994


Reprinted from UNMed Magazine (Fall 2012)

Leonard M. Napolitano, PhD, grew up in Oakland, CA, one of three children and the only son of Italian immigrants from the central part of Italy.

From humble beginnings, Napolitano's childhood aspiration was simply "to get a job." He could not have imagined his impact on New Mexico and the Southwest during his long, accomplished career as a medical school dean. "… I never knew what that was," he muses.

A Visionary Quarterback

Napolitano majored in biology and chemistry at Santa Clara College. As the team's quarterback, he learned important leadership lessons. In 1949, Napolitano's underdog team won the Orange Bowl — an upset victory over legendary Bear Bryant's Kentucky Wildcats and Santa Clara College's only Orange Bowl appearance.

For Napolitano the Orange Bowl victory proved that small institutions could compete on equal footing with large institutions. "You don't need the resources of a Harvard. You don't have to have the student body of 25,000 to do something well and to be competitive," he asserts. He carried this lesson into his decades at UNM.

By the fall of 1964 when UNM School of Medicine (SOM) opened, Dr. Napolitano joined other "founding faculty" members as an associate professor of anatomy. They later described their decision to build a medical school from scratch as the most daring and exciting thing they'd ever attempted.

The Golden Age of Napolitano - 1972-1994

Dr. Napolitano became the School's third Dean. Medical education has always meant intensive classroom, laboratory, and library study to master the basic sciences. Under Dr. Napolitano's stewardship, medical education also meant knowing patients as people, so attention to the human side of medicine began in the first weeks of study.

In 1972 the School received funding from the National Cancer Institute to begin construction of a new cancer treatment facility. Dr. Napolitano also led the establishment of the Allied Health Programs, now the Health Professions & Public Health Program, to train medical technologists, physical therapists, nuclear medicine and radiology technicians, and respiratory therapists.

In 1975 the UNM Cancer Research and Treatment Center opened. The next year the Medical Sciences Library, now the Health Sciences Library and Informatics Center, relocated to a new building on the North Campus..

Under the guidance of Napolitano and visionary colleagues, the school's problem-based learning curriculum, the Primary Care Curriculum, drew interest world-wide as an innovative way of teaching medical students. In 1977, Napolitano also became director of the UNM Medical Center's many hospitals and clinics.

Other growth under his leadership included the opening of the Family Practice building, which housed Departments of Family and Community Medicine; Emergency Medicine; Practice clinic; Department of Psychiatry; Emergency Medical Services Academy; and the Medical Book Store. Funded by the National Institutes of Health in 1977, the General Clinical Research Center became a reality. The UNM Children's Psychiatric Hospital was also completed.

The 1980s brought even more expansion. The SOM began its Continuing Medical Education Program. The School received national recognition for its Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT).

At Heart, A Scientist

In July 2010, his passion for anatomy and science were acknowledged at the dedication of The Leonard M. Napolitano, PhD, Anatomical Education Center. The ceremony was attended by Napolitano's children, Leonard, Jr., Janet, and Nancy, and grandchildren William and Sara. Janet Napolitano, United States Secretary of Homeland Security, said of her father, "He is at heart a scientist by academic training and academic practice. Although, I think, Dad … if you'd ever gone into electoral politics, you would have done very, very well."

A Tenacious Fighter for His School and Students

A man of many talents, Napolitano proved himself a savvy political negotiator. Napolitano personally lobbied legislators in Santa Fe. He blended in with the "railbird" lobbyists who stood at the rail of the State Capitol rotunda. A native Californian and an East Coast academic, Napolitano became a New Mexico insider.

By avoiding partisanship and by dealing equally with both sides, Napolitano became well-regarded by local NM politicians. Napolitano credits his effectiveness in Santa Fe as being key toward his success as a dean, and toward stabilizing the School of Medicine. Due to his efforts, the Basic Research Facility opened with laboratory and office space for basic science researchers and clinical research scientists, and the NM Legislature strengthened the School's ability to successfully compete for research grant monies.

A Living Legend

Napolitano received the School of Medicine's Living Legend Award on May 15, 2009, presented by his successor, Paul Roth, MD, Chancellor for Health Sciences and Dean, School of Medicine. Within the School of Medicine, Napolitano is known as a man of fairness, honesty, and determination. When asked what drove him to do so much for New Mexico, Napolitano replied simply, "It was my job."