The University of Kentucky College of Medicine lost an icon in the field of cardiovascular medicine, translational research, and medical education. Susan Smyth, MD, PhD, died of cancer on Dec. 31, 2022, at the age of 57.

Dr. Smyth committed 15 years to the growth and prosperity of the UK College of Medicine before joining the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) to serve as dean and executive vice chancellor in 2021.

Her vast expertise was represented in her leadership and involvement in numerous pillars of the UK College of Medicine’s mission. She was the former director of the Gill Heart and Vascular Institute, as well as the division chief for cardiovascular medicine. She was the Jeff Gill Professor of Cardiology in the UK College of Department of Internal Medicine and held joint appointments in behavioral science, pharmacology and nutritional sciences, and physiology.

Dr. Smyth also oversaw the UK College of Medicine’s MD/PhD program for 11 years, was an attending physician at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and was heavily involved in Women in Medicine and Science (WIMS), the Saha Cardiovascular Research Center, and the Center for Clinical and Translational Science (CCTS).

Lisa Tannock, vice dean for faculty affairs and development, remembers Dr. Smyth as a “true triple threat” – an outstanding physician-scientist, a caring and compassionate clinician, and a fantastic educator who mentored many trainees and guided faculty to excel in career development.

It was that full resume that left a significant impression on CCTS director Philip Kern, MD, when he first came to UK for a job visit. Inspired by Dr. Smyth’s enthusiasm, judgment, and knowledge, he knew he wanted to be at an institution that had people “as impressive as she was.” Dr. Kern would go on to work with Dr. Smyth for many years at the CCTS. She continued to inspire him through her obtainment of National Institutes of Health grant funding related to thrombosis and inflammation, her leadership on many prominent projects, and her attentiveness to patients and colleagues.

“There were many occasions when I would call her from clinic – ‘Susan, I have a patient who worries me and needs to be seen by a cardiologist’ – and the patient would be seen that day,” Dr. Kern said.

Vincent Sorrell, MD, the Anthony N. DeMaria Professor of Medicine, said Dr. Smyth’s ability to hold so many roles so well was why he looked up to her when he was fellowship program director. Dr. Smyth had a keen ability to meet deadlines and to step up to fill gaps where needed, whether that be floor service, consults, the intensive care unit, the VA, or outreach.

Dr. Smyth taught him many things, among them to thoroughly understand the issues before making a final decision and to never hesitate to ask questions when necessary. She “was truly and sincerely a one-of-a-kind clinician-scientist,” Dr. Sorrell said. “Her ability to lead with a quiet example was so unique.”

As she built her own successful career, Dr. Smyth was also an advocate for her colleagues, continuously joining efforts to create additional professional development opportunities. Notably, she was a champion for the advancement of women, serving as a charter member of the Women in Medicine and Science (WIMS) Executive Committee and later leading or serving on multiple subcommittees. Along with WIMS founding chair M. Elizabeth Oates, MD, she helped the group create its inaugural three-year report to broadly showcase the success of the college’s chapter. “Her enthusiastic participation and unflagging support were vital in every way,” said Dr. Oates.

The future leaders of WIMS vow to continue to lead by her example. April Hatcher, PhD, current WIMS chair, said Dr. Smyth “was a very driven, compassionate, successful woman who was an inspiration for many.” The organization is working on ways it can honor her contributions.

As a model physician-scientist, Dr. Smyth was an ideal leader for the UK MD/PhD program. In her 11 years as director, Dr. Smyth mentored dozens of trainees pursuing the combined degree, including Louisville physician Scott Silva, MD, PhD, who said Dr. Smyth was supportive and helped ensure a “seamless” process when he transferred into UK’s program in 2009.

Dr. Smyth not only demonstrated to her trainees the key qualities of an excellent basic scientist and clinician, but also how to balance a demanding career and time with family. This life lesson had an “enduring imprint” on UK alumnus Zachary Fulkerson, MD, PhD. Early in his graduate training, he remembers attending the Midwest Platelet Conference, which was hosted at UK. Dr. Smyth played a key role ensuring the event ran smoothly, but at one point in the night at a social event, Dr. Fulkerson walked out on the balcony and saw Dr. Smyth, in the midst of this hectic week, playing tag with her two sons, William and Edward.

“Seeing how she managed so many professional responsibilities but didn’t compromise her relationship with her sons left an enduring imprint for me,” Dr. Fulkerson said. “I don’t know how one person can be so many things to so many different people, but she somehow found a way.” 

Dr. Smyth’s life was tragically cut short, but her work has left a lasting impression, both at UK and beyond, through the trainees and faculty who were fortunate to have worked closely with her.

Andres Chang, MD, PhD, another of Dr. Smyth’s mentees, will always remember Dr. Smyth for making time for mentorship, particularly at the important transition points in the long journey of becoming a physician-scientist. For Dr. Chang, the value of her teachings has extended beyond his years at Kentucky and into his years as an instructor at the Emory University School of Medicine.

“Her legacy will live on within the institutions, the colleagues, and the mentees she impacted,” Dr. Chang said. “She will be truly missed by all of us.”