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July 20, 2021

Saying goodbye to Pittman CAMS, the building that made a lasting impression on UAB's guests

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CAMS comms article 1As the School of Medicine advances and grows as a national leader of excellence, several facilities on campus are undergoing renovation or remodeling.

To accommodate the new Altec Styslinger Genomic Medicine and Data Sciences Building, the school will say goodbye to Pittman CAMS (Center for Advanced Medical Studies) at the end of 2021.

Built in the late 1970s, the Center for Advanced Medical Studies opened its doors in 1980. The idea for the space harmonized two unique concepts from two different men.

First, this type of center—one for advanced medical studies—was a concept fostered by legend Tinsley R. Harrison, M.D., second dean of the Medical College of Alabama and chair of the Department of Medicine. As other academic medical centers around the country established their own centers for advanced study—to celebrate the finest achievements among faculty and to provoke intellectually stimulating conversation among academics—Harrison’s natural teaching personality cultivated the same environment in his own home.

Harrison notably invited students, faculty, and trainees to his house for dinner at least once a month. He was known to encourage exciting, and often emotionally-charged, conversation on a specific medical topic. He meant to provoke a love of learning and continued research among his dinner guests, sending them out the following days and weeks later to investigate more on the previous dinner topic. Harrison believed the most significant teaching component was to encourage a desire to learn, and he set that desire in motion during his dinners.

Harrison retired in 1970. Soon after, James A. Pittman, Jr. M.D., Harrison’s mentee and new dean of the UAB School of Medicine, was approached by a Birmingham businessman, Mr. Hall W. Thompson, who proposed a new facility that would house the most outstanding "performances" of academic medicine, specifically one that would motivate the highest level of achievement among UAB faculty. The proposed center would be a grand and lavish place devoted to scholarship, research, and academia with the space to entertain international scholars and celebrities who visited the academic medical center. The idea was unknowingly a nod to Harrison's intellectual dinners.

Pittman appointed an advisory committee within the school to assess and consider other AMCs’ advanced study centers. The committee consisted of UAB legends including John W Kirklin, M.D., (then) chair of the Department of Surgery; Thomas, N. James, M.D., (then) chair of the Department of Medicine; J. Claude Bennett, M.D., (then) chair of the Department of Microbiology; and Thomas Andreoli, M.D., (then) director of the Division of Nephrology, as well as other faculty members.

CAMS comms article 2Courtesy of UAB ArchivesTogether with Dean Pittman, they visited peer AMCs who had such centers for achievement, including the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, the Faculty Club at Harvard University, and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

Making lasting impressions on medical geniuses

Once it was decided, the building was constructed where the Reynolds Historical Library, built in 1958, once sat. A dedication ceremony was held March 5-7, 1980.

To accommodate the wishes of Mr. Thompson and honor the spirit of former Dean Harrison, the first floor of CAMS originally included a “Great Hall,” with a library and living room big enough to hold around 50 people, as well as a dining room to seat 14 guests. It also housed a bar, a small kitchen, and a pantry.

Upstairs, two apartments lodged visiting scholars, complete with a bedroom, bathroom, living room, and dining area.

After a while, two medical students were selected annually to staff CAMS from 7 p.m.-7 a.m. Students were provided the living space for free in exchange for watching over CAMS at night, helping visitors, and cleaning.

Among the guests hosted at CAMS throughout the years were some renowned giants in medicine and health care. Some include, but are not limited to:

Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease
William Roper, M.D., former director of the CDC and alumnus of the School of Medicine and a graduate of the UAB School of Public Health
Linus C. Pauling, Ph.D., two time Nobel Prize winner for his work against nuclear war and in sickle cell disease
Dorothy Hodgkin, Ph.D., Nobel Prize winner for discovering the structure of Vitamin B-12
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger
James D. Watson, Ph.D., and Francis H.C. Crick, Ph.D., who both won a Nobel Prize for their work discovering double helix nature of DNA

..and so many more.

Building renamed for a UAB hero

On Dec. 12, 1996, UAB’s Board of Trustees approved the renaming of three buildings—one being CAMS. The building would become Pittman CAMS after long-time Dean James A. Pittman, Jr., M.D.

cams comms article 3Dean James A. Pittman, Jr., M.D.Pittman received his medical degree from Harvard University and then trained at Massachusetts General Hospital and the National Institutes of Health, while also serving as an instructor at George Washington University School of Medicine. He moved to Birmingham in 1956, where he completed residency and served as chief resident in the Department of Medicine.

Pittman served in several teaching and administrative positions, including director of the Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism and co-chair of the Department of Medicine. During his time as a teaching doctor, he became a friend and mentee of Dr. Tinsley Harrison. In 1973, Pittman became dean of the School of Medicine. 

He served an unparalleled 19 years in the position.

In “Tinsley Harrison, M.D.: Teacher of Medicine,” Joe LaRussa, M.D., writes in his foreword: “Dean Pittman had high standards. He put the bar way up there. It is up to us, because if we teach what he taught us, and then if those young doctors teach the others, then in a sense, Dean Pittman will still be teaching. It is perpetual, everlasting.”

In an article written on Dean Pittman when he passed, UAB President Ray L. Watts said: "Dr. Pittman's work was truly transformational, and we owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude. There is no doubt that his influence and reputation extended well beyond UAB. He is one of the great people who, through his unwavering dedication, helped propel UAB’s growth into an institution that can and does change the world for the better.”

CAMS comms article 4Pittman's impact, inspiration, and intellect will forever be the laid foundations of UAB School of Medicine—no matter the architectural space to house them.

Constructing new space for new studies

Owning a hospitable and welcoming space like Pittman CAMS, lovingly known as PCAMS throughout the years, has given UAB an opportunity over the past 40+ years to build relationships with international medical giants. It has made a good impression on those visiting UAB's campus and hospital, as well as those visiting Birmingham and the state of Alabama.

Eventually, Pittman CAMS became space for employees of the Center for Clinical & Translational Science (CCTS), among others, and the entire second floor was converted to offices. Some space on the first floor was also used.

Below, one faculty member and one staff member share their fond memories of Pittman CAMS.

PCAMS has been our home, the location where we’ve had open houses for all faculty and staff, where we’ve developed communities of scholars working together and where we’ve met with community leaders in partnership for translational research. Many collaborations were built, ideas inspired and friendships formed within those walls.
- CCTS Director Robert P. Kimberly, M.D.

Each year, the CCTS team enjoyed coming together to decorate PCAMS for the holidays. We would then open the doors to many other schools, departments, student associations, and others to use for their end-of-year celebrations. The charm inside PCAMS made for a wonderful gathering place for many across campus.
- CCTS Administrative Projects Specialist Jamye Hester

The conceptual idea of Pittman CAMS, brought forth by Dean Pittman and the past generation, will live on in the new Altec Styslinger Genomic Medicine and Data Sciences Building, but also in the hearts and minds of UAB’s students, faculty, and trainees.

Read more about the facilities projects at the School of Medicine or read a historical overview of another impactful building undergoing demolition.