Ralph Snyderman portrait
Centennial Spotlights

Ralph Snyderman

Having left the chairmanship of rheumatology at Duke to join the pioneering biotechnology firm Genentech, Dr. Ralph Snyderman frankly had no interest in returning to Durham, where he had done his residency and held his first faculty position. He was living in San Francisco. Genentech was selling $100 million worth of the anticlotting medication TPA each year and about to have a breakthrough with the first drug against AIDS.

But then his friend and former colleague and running partner Dr. Robert Lefkowitz called to tell him he’d make a great health system chancellor.

Ralph Snyderman, Chancellor Emeritus, celebrates his 70th birthday party with friends, including Dr. Robert Lefkowitz, at the Washington Duke Inn.

At Genentech, “I learned a tremendous amount about business, drive, initiative, organization and leadership,” Snyderman told historian Walter Campbell. “Had I not been among the senior leadership of Genentech, I would not have been interested in nor qualified for the position of chancellor of Duke.”

With 16 of 21 department chairs in the School of Medicine facing retirement in the next five years, Snyderman recognized he would have an opportunity to refresh and rebuild Duke Medicine and help it reach a higher level. He took the job and served as chancellor for Health Affairs and dean of the School of Medicine from 1989 to 2004, leading the development of the Duke University Health System and serving as its first president and CEO.

Ralph Snyderman in a white coat with residents in a hospital hallway

Inspired by President Keith Brodie’s vision of “One Duke” and his own experience on the frontiers of DNA-driven science, Snyderman was also instrumental in the formation of the Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy at Duke. “I conceived of an institute that would bring together the health system, the School of Medicine, biomedical research, law, ethics and policy,” he said. “I actually doodled all the structures interacting with each other on a napkin.”

Launched in 2003, the IGSP recruited more than 35 new faculty members who brought in $260 million in research funding before the institute was divided into three new academic units in 2014. The 120,000-square-foot eponymously named Snyderman Genome Science Research Building at 905 LaSalle Street also opened in 2003.