The Division of Rheumatology was organized in the 1950s by Howard L. Holley, MD. He was born in the Black Belt of Alabama and came to UAB in 1945 as an intern in the first group of housestaff who inaugurated the new four year medical school. He remained through housestaff training and was asked to establish rheumatology as a distinct clinical division within the Department of Medicine. It was not unusual at that time for the chiefs of rheumatology to have come from general medical or other specialty training, there being few designated rheumatology training programs. Thus, the program established by Dr. Holley was among a handful in the US. Dr. Holley was doubtless influenced to establish a rheumatology division by the perceived need within the Department of Medicine and by his desire to better understand rheumatoid arthritis, which would eventually cripple him and contribute to his death in 1987. Through Dr. Holley's warm and empathetic personality and management expertise, by the early 1960s the Division had grown to include a clinical training program with two fulltime clinician-educators and three PhD faculty whose research focused on the physicochemical properties of the rheumatoid factor; at that time a complete understanding of such was viewed as the Holy Grail of research in the rheumatic diseases.
In 1966, J. Claude Bennett, MD, a native of Birmingham, joined the faculty as an Associate Professor of Medicine and Assistant Director of the Division. Dr. Bennett had a strong laboratory-based research background centered on components of the immune response within the purview of rheumatic diseases. Soon after joining the faculty, he was designated a Markle Scholar, a highly prestigious and competitive honor. Dr. Bennett succeeded Dr. Holley as Director of the Division and its official name was changed to the Division of Clinical Immunology and Rheumatology to reflect shifting research and clinical interests. Under Dr. Bennett's leadership, the Division flourished, with significant increases in the number of faculty and research funding. Over the next few years, Dr. Bennett was named the first holder of the Howard Holley Chair of Medicine, became the editor of the American Journal of Medicine, the Editor-in-Chief of Arthritis & Rheumatism, and a member of the American Board of Internal Medicine. In recognition of his visionary and administrative talents, he was asked to re-organize the Department of Microbiology as its Chairman. Several years later, Microbiology at UAB was rated the top Department in the country. In 1982, Dr. Bennett was appointed Chairman of the Department of Medicine and relinquished the Directorship of the Division, and Chairmanship of Microbiology. In 1993 he was given the John Phillips Memorial Award for Outstanding Work in Clinical Medicine by the American College of Physicians. He served as a President of the American College of Rheumatology and later became the fourth President of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, serving until 1996. After his tenure as President, Dr. Bennett became President and Chief Operating Officer at BioCryst Pharmaceuticals, Inc. He has now come full circle as an attendee at Divisional conferences, and advisor to the Division Director.
Dr. Bennett was succeeded as chief of the division and Howard Holley Chair of Medicine by Dr. William J. Koopman, whose background also included Harvard Medical School, the Massachusetts General Hospital, and the National Institutes of Health. He too was interested in various aspects of rheumatoid factors and their role in initiating and maintaining the inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis. Dr. Koopman's background in laboratory based research and his active participation in the clinic allowed him to rationalize the use of biological agents such as anti-CD4 antibody and TNF inhibitors in rheumatoid arthritis and to collaborate with various members within and outside the division in pivotal studies. Dr. Koopman formed the Arthritis Clinical Intervention Program in 1992 and appointed Dr. Larry Moreland as its first director. Thus, Dr. Koopman was an important facilitator of translational research before it became a dominant paradigm in academic medicine. Dr. Koopman was involved in extramural academia, and became President of the American College of Rheumatology and Editor-in-Chief of Arthritis & Rheumatism, and Editor of the textbook Arthritis and Allied Conditions. In 1995, Dr. Koopman established a major research partnership with a Japanese pharmaceutical company, Sankyo, which continues to this day. Like his predecessors as division directors, Dr. Koopman had a strong sense of collegiality, and it was this, as much as his excellence in education, research, and clinical medicine that led to his appointment as Chairman of the Department of Medicine upon Dr. Bennett's assumption of the Presidency of UAB. After 10 years as a highly successful Chief of Medicine, Dr. Koopman retired, but still remains active in a Junior Faculty Mentoring Program for the Department of Medicine.
Dr. Gene V. Ball, a clinician-educator, was the interim director of the division for 18 months in 1995-96. His uniqueness lay in developing strong relationships with patients, which led ultimately to the establishment of three endowed chairs in the Department of Medicine, an endowment for the annual Lowe Conference of Rheumatic Diseases, and a large endowment for the University.
In 1996, Dr. Robert Kimberly became the fourth Division Director. He was recruited from the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, where he had been a Professor of Medicine, and was the first Division Director without prior association with UAB. Like two of his predecessors, Dr. Kimberly is a graduate of Harvard Medical School, with the additional distinction of having been a Rhodes Scholar. Assisted by associates he brought to UAB from his laboratory in New York, Dr. Kimberly continued his investigation of genetic susceptibility and pathogenesis of rheumatic diseases, particularly systemic lupus erythematosus. Dr. Kimberly is the current Howard Holley Chair of Medicine and Director of the UAB Comprehensive Arthritis, Musculoskeletal, and Autoimmunity Center. He was named Senior Associate Dean for Clinical Research in the UAB School of Medicine and relinquished leadership of the Division in 2007 to focus on this role.
Dr. Kimberly's successor was Dr. Robert Carter, also a graduate of Harvard Medical School. Dr. Carter served as Division Director for from July 1, 2007 to June 30, 2008. Dr. Carter's research was aimed at unraveling the molecular regulation of B lymphocytes and their role in autoimmunity. Like previous directors, he was also interested in translational research, particularly on lupus. Dr. Carter left UAB for a major leadership position at NIH, where he serves as Deputy Director of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.
On May 1, 2009, after a national search, S. Louis Bridges, Jr., MD, PhD became the Director of the Division of Clinical Immunology and Rheumatology. Dr. Bridges is the first graduate of the UAB Rheumatology fellowship program to be named Director of the Division, and is the first holder of the Marguerite Jones Harbert-Gene V Ball, MD Chair. In 2014, Dr. Bridges was appointed to the Anna Lois Waters Endowed Chair in the Division of Clinical Immunology and Rheumatology.