Laura Hutchins, M.D., Honored as Dean’s Distinguished Scholar

By Susan Van Dusen

It didn’t take long for the teenager to realize that lab work was more stimulating than cleaning barns.

It also was quickly apparent to her colleagues that Hutchins had a knack for health care.

“It was the lab techs who encouraged me to apply to medical school,” she said, reflecting back to a time in the early 1970s when few women pursued careers as doctors.

As one of only 11 women accepted to her class in the now-UAMS College of Medicine, Hutchins recalls the experience with humor, although it began with an unusual requirement.

“I was told I had to become a citizen of Arkansas in order to accept my spot in the class,” she said, citing an enrollment requirement. To do that, Hutchins needed to marry a resident of the state. Luckily for her, that was already in the works.

Determined to keep her medical school dream alive, Hutchins moved up her impending wedding and claimed the spot she rightfully earned.

Times have changed, she noted. The gender balance in the UAMS College of Medicine is now almost equally mixed, with 82 women and 88 men enrolled in the Class of 2020.

Hutchins’ determined spirit and thirst for knowledge carried her through medical school, internship, residency and a fellowship at UAMS, followed by multiple leadership roles on the faculty, including 15 years as director of the UAMS Division of Hematology/Oncology and 20 years as associate director for clinical research in the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute.

Hutchins presents lecture

Laura Hutchins, M.D., presents the 2019 Dean’s Distinguished Lectureship.

All told, she devoted 46 years at the university, most recently as interim director of the Cancer Institute.

“Dr. Hutchins postponed her retirement to serve as interim director for 18 months while the search for a permanent director was underway. For that we are eternally grateful,” said College of Medicine Dean Christopher Westfall, M.D.

Hutchins plans to retire in January 2020.

In recognition of her service, Hutchins was named the College of Medicine’s 2019 Distinguished Faculty Scholar. She presented the Dean’s Distinguished Lectureship to a crowd of colleagues and friends gathered to honor her Dec. 3.

“We have had many impressive speakers participate in the Dean’s Distinguished Lecture Series, but it is particularly gratifying to welcome one of our own,” said Westfall.

Westfall thanked the three College of Medicine faculty members who nominated Hutchins for this recognition: Kristin Zorn, M.D., professor and director of the Division of Gynecologic Oncology; Jeannette Lee, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Biostatistics; and Steve Post, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Pathology.

“In her nomination letter, Dr. Zorn noted Dr. Hutchins’ ‘legacy of selfless service,’ while Dr. Post stated that we all have benefited from Dr. Hutchins’ ‘steadfast leadership,’” said Westfall.

In her nomination, Lee noted the wide-ranging aspect of Hutchins’ research, from developing a vaccine for high-risk breast cancer patients to fully exploring the use of digital enterprise systems in clinical and translational research.

As for himself, Westfall expressed gratitude to Hutchins for her willingness to see his patients who needed the care of an oncologist.

“When I first arrived a UAMS, there was never a time when I called her about a patient when she didn’t say ‘send him over this afternoon,’ or ‘I’ll see her tomorrow,’” he said.

Westfall is also a professor and director of the UAMS Harvey & Bernice Jones Eye Institute.

A hematologist/oncologist and professor of medicine, Hutchins’ research activities focused primarily on clinical trials related to breast cancer and melanoma. She served as local investigator for more than 70 multisite trials and principal investigator for two cooperative group national trials.

She was program director of the UAMS Hematology/Oncology Fellowship Program for 10 years and held the Virginia Clinton Kelley Endowed Chair for Clinical Research from March 2007 to December 2018.

The Distinguished Faculty Scholar lecture is part of the College of Medicine’s Dean’s Distinguished Lecture series. Since 1993, the lecture series has brought researchers, clinicians and leaders in academic medicine from around the world to UAMS to discuss their work and advances in their fields.

Each year a special lecture honors one of the college’s own faculty members as the Dean’s Distinguished Faculty Scholar. Faculty members from throughout the college are invited to nominate colleagues, and a committee of faculty members evaluates comprehensive nomination packets to select the honoree.