By John Howser
Walter Clair, MD, MPH, who earned his bachelor’s and medical degrees and Master of Public Health from Harvard University, is one of three 2021 recipients of Harvard University’s highest honor, the Harvard Medal.
Clair, professor of Clinical Medicine and vice chair for Diversity and Inclusion in the Department of Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, will receive the award virtually from the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) at its annual meeting on June 4.
“This is a wonderful recognition for Dr. Clair, who is a leader in the Medical School, the Vanderbilt Heart and Vascular Institute, and the Department of Medicine as well as institutionally here at Vanderbilt. His insights across medicine, diversity, and fundamentally, humanity, engage and uplift everyone he interacts with, and I have learned tremendously from him in the past year. I am really just delighted that he has been bestowed this honor,” said Kim Rathmell, MD, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Medicine in Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
The Harvard Medal is awarded to recognize “extraordinary service” to Harvard University, where Clair has been a longtime leader and mentor, serving on numerous committees and boards including the University’s Board of Overseers from 2009-2016 and as vice chair of Harvard’s Board of Overseers Executive Committee for 2014-2015.
“This is a surprising and humbling recognition for doing things that have made me a better person. It really belongs to my wife and sons as well. They have supported me and shared my passion for personal growth by serving and providing opportunities for others,” said Clair, executive medical director of the Vanderbilt Heart and Vascular Institute from 2015-2021 and a specialist in arrhythmias, syncope, palpitations, sudden cardiac death, pacemakers and defibrillators.
Also receiving the Medal for 2021 are Nancy-Beth Gordan Sheerr and Preston N. Williams, PhD.
An elected director of the HAA from 2002 to 2005 and chairman of the HAA’s awards committee from 2005 to 2007, Clair is familiar with awarding persons for their “extraordinary service” — which is a broad term that can be applied to “as many different areas of University life as can be imagined” — including teaching, fundraising, administration, management, generosity, leadership and innovation.
He pushed hard for the committee to think outside the box for its recipients rather than rubberstamping a list of lifetime accomplishments.
“I argued that we were giving an award, not a ‘reward.’ I wanted the award to honor the character traits and virtues that signaled to others what Harvard felt was important in its alumni and affiliates,” Clair said.
He has supported diversity and students of color throughout his career, most recently working with VUSM students and staff to rename Dixie Place to Vivien Thomas Way on the VUMC campus. He also mentors students through the nonprofit program 100 Black Men of Middle Tennessee, which provides resources to further the academic and social development of students in Middle Tennessee schools.
In addition to earning degrees from Harvard College, Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health, Clair was an intern, resident and primary care chief resident at Brigham and Women’s Hospital from 1981 to 1984.
Clair received Cardiology Faculty Teaching Awards in 2007 and 2008 from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, and the Levi Watkins Jr. Faculty Award for Commitment to Diversity in 2012.
He is married to Deborah Webster Clair, MD, who is an obstetrician-gynecologist. They have two sons, Brian Clair, MD, MBA, a hand surgeon, and Matthew Clair, PhD, who is an assistant professor in the Stanford Department of Sociology.