Now in her 16th year as a professor and chair of the Department of Pediatrics and the Alfred Dorrance Daniels Professor on Diseases of Children at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH), Ellen Wald, MD, is the 2021 recipient of the prestigious Folkert Belzer Award, a lifetime achievement recognition presented annually to an SMPH faculty member.

Named for the late former chair of the school’s Department of Surgery, who was known for his pioneering discoveries in organ transplantation, the Belzer Award recognizes an outstanding individual who has had a pivotal impact on the school and the people and populations it serves. Wald accepted the award at the school's fall faculty and staff virtual meeting on Oct. 11, 2021.

Ellen Wald portrait
Ellen Wald

“Dr. Wald has been a remarkable, game-changing department chair and institutional leader,” says Robert N. Golden, MD, dean of the School of Medicine and Public Health. “She has dramatically advanced our clinical and academic missions, driven by a profound commitment to improving the health of all children.”

Beloved by the faculty and staff of the Department of Pediatrics and beyond, Wald has an impressive array of individual accomplishments and honors. Her greatest pride comes from supporting the academic and clinical pursuits of the department’s 200 faculty members.

“Somehow, Ellen has figured out the secret of finding more than 24 hours in a day. She starts early and ends late, and her energy level is remarkable,” says Paul Sondel, MD, PhD ’75 (PG ’80), a professor of pediatrics and human oncology at the school and the research director and former chief of the Division of Pediatric Hematology, Oncology and Bone Marrow Transplant in the Department of Pediatrics.

“Ellen always has her finger on the pulse of what everybody is doing,” he adds. “And so much of what we do is attributable to her genuine commitment to help each faculty member flourish in their research and clinical practice.”

J. Carter Ralphe, MD, chief of the Division of Pediatric Cardiology and one of many physician leaders recruited by Wald, can’t say enough about her interpersonal skills.

“At our first meeting, I knew Ellen was someone I wanted to work for,” Ralphe shares. “Her genuine interest in people — both personally and professionally — really came through. When faculty come to her with requests, as they do every day, Ellen’s instinct is to say, ‘Yes, let’s try to do that,’ and follow through with supportive action.”

Tremendous growth during Wald's tenure

In 2006, Wald joined the School of Medicine and Public Health determined to grow the Department of Pediatrics and expand UW Health’s state-of-the-art American Family Children’s Hospital, where she serves as pediatrician-in-chief. Results during her tenure speak for themselves; for example:

  • The number of pediatrics faculty members has more than doubled, from 90 to 200.
  • Every senior investigator who was on the faculty when Wald arrived remains today.
  • Department of Pediatrics extramural research funding from the National Institutes of Health has increased nearly five-fold, from $4.7 million (2007) to $23.1 million (2020); the respective national ranking rose from 37th to 13th.
  • In the past decade, UW Health’s Pediatric Heart Program has achieved national rankings from U.S. News & World Report and the Society for Thoracic Surgeons.
  • The department’s Division of Neonatology, which cares for the region’s most premature and/or acutely ill babies at two neonatal intensive care units, has grown from five to 25 faculty members.
  • More effective, less toxic immunotherapy-based cancer treatments are being developed, thanks to contributions from UW Health’s highly reputed team of childhood cancer researchers; UW-Madison is one of nine worldwide programs that comprise the Pediatric Cancer Dream Team supported by the St. Baldrick’s Foundation and Stand Up To Cancer.

A special point of pride for Wald is the creation of a robust Pediatric Hospitalist Program that supervises inpatient care at American Family Children’s Hospital. With 17 physicians—most of whom also conduct research in this nascent subspecialty that is now board certified—pediatric hospital medicine has grown in parallel with the complexity of inpatient illnesses.

“It takes more coordination than ever to successfully care for today’s hospitalized children because more highly premature babies are surviving, and more kids are admitted with complex needs,” says Ryan Coller, MD, MPH, who heads the Pediatric Hospitalist Program. “Hospitalists play a huge role in their care, and Ellen provided the needed resources to grow this program.”

A Brooklyn beginning

A native of Brooklyn, New York, Ellen Rashkow Wald majored in math at Brooklyn College, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa. She planned to become a math teacher, but a chance encounter with a classmate during her senior year put Wald on a different path.

“I asked another woman student what she was doing after graduation, and she said she was going to medical school,” Wald says.

She realized that going to medical school would fulfill a mostly suppressed aspiration to join the medical field that as a young girl Wald thought was beyond her reach. She was able to complete several requisite courses, take the MCAT exam and apply.

Money was tight in Wald’s family, so leaving Brooklyn wasn’t realistic for medical school. She was accepted close to home at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, where tuition was affordable, and she met her husband-to-be, a classmate.

“I was intrigued by this girl who was eating a chopped liver sandwich,” recalls Arnold “Arnie” Wald, MD (PG ’94), now a professor in the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology in the school's Department of Medicine and a gastroenterologist at UW Health. “I was raised in a rural setting about 40 miles north of the city, but Ellen assured me that chopped liver was a common delicacy in Brooklyn.”

Ellen and Arnold Wald portrait
Ellen Wald, MD, and Arnold Wald, MD (PG ’94)

By the end of their second year of medical school, Ellen and Arnie Wald married. They are one of five couples within their class who married; all are still together more than 50 years later.

Following their residencies and fellowships — hers, respectively, at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn and the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore; and his, respectively, at Kings County Hospital and The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore — the Walds dedicated 28-year careers to the University of Pittsburgh faculty, where Ellen Wald specialized in pediatric infectious diseases with an emphasis on childhood sinus and respiratory infections. She rose to the position of chief of the Division of Allergy, Immunology and Infectious Disease and served as interim chair of pediatrics for two and a half years.

Initial hesitation

“At first, I was hesitant about taking on so much administrative responsibility. I was told that being a chair is a thankless job, but people actually thanked me every day,” Ellen Wald recalls with a chuckle. “It made me feel that I could meaningfully support the faculty and help them thrive, which is how I view the chair’s primary role.”

A family posing on a staircase
Ellen Wald, MD, and Arnold Wald, MD, top left, with their family.

The interim role prepared her well for her current chair position. In January 2022, she will celebrate her 16th anniversary with that title.

“We were in our early 60s when we came to Madison,” Arnie Wald notes. “Some people probably thought we’d retire within five years, but Ellen hit the ground running and hasn’t stopped yet.”

Colleagues note that few people in academic medicine work with as much energy and enthusiasm as Ellen Wald, and they praise her for her personal warmth.

“Ellen knows the name of everyone’s spouse and kids,” says her former administrative assistant, Sue Burke (now retired). “Her door is always open, and she makes time to help anyone professionally or personally.”

Michelle Kelly, MD, MS, an School of Medicine and Public Health associate professor of pediatrics and a pediatric hospitalist at American Family Children’s Hospital, remembers an ecstatic Ellen Wald running to her office to extend congratulations moments after Kelly received a prestigious career development award that now funds Kelly’s research on patient- and family-centered care.

“She’s also the person who will stop you in the hallway and say, ‘What’s going on? Let’s find some time to talk,’” Kelly says.

Work-family balance

Ellen Wald brings the full package— leadership, clinical expertise, volumes of published research and numerous professional honors. Still, family remains her most cherished priority. She and Arnie Wald are proud of their two children, Elissa and Eric, their spouses and five grandchildren ranging in age from 9 to 14.

“Grandchildren are special in so many ways,” Arnie Wald says. “Not only is there the reciprocal unconditional love between grandparent and grandchild, but the intensity of your affection for your grandchildren also strengthens the bond to your children.”

He continues, “Ellen and I are so grateful to be healthy enough to enjoy them as much as we do.”

In September 2021, Ellen Wald indicated an interest in expanding the available time for her family and personal life by stepping down from the chair role, while planning to continue teaching and conducting research. But until school leaders are able to find a successor to fill her shoes as chair of the Department of Pediatrics, she is dedicated to supporting the department and school in the steadfast manner she has exhibited to date.

“We have something special here that is truly worth cherishing,” remarks Ralphe. “Ellen has been a transformative leader because she wants her people to succeed. Much of our growth is because of the collaborative cultural tone she sets, and for that we are incredibly lucky.”

By Michael Felber
This article appears in Quarterly magazine.