Alumni Profile: Commemorating 40 Years
Michael Mulholland, ’78 MD, PhD
When Michael Mulholland, ’78 MD, PhD, married during the last month of medical school, he was sharing a small room in Abbott Hall, a dormitory at the time. “Our room had two beds, two dressers and two desks, with a community bathroom down the hall,” he recalls.
Upon vacating his quarters, all of Mulholland’s earthly possessions, mostly books, fit in the back seat of a Volkswagen Beetle. “But I left Northwestern with a great education, someone to share my life with and a future,” he says.
Mulholland, now chair of the Department of Surgery at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, met his one-day spouse, Patricia Heyboer, ’76 CERT, on the Northwestern campus early in his medical school years. She was also a student, in Northwestern’s physical therapy program. The two of them married on the Evanston campus in the Shiel Chapel, before living together in a Chicago apartment.
So there’s no question that 2018 is shaping up to be a banner year for Mulholland. In addition to celebrating 40 years of marriage and graduation from medical school, he is marking his 30th year at the University of Michigan and, in April, was bestowed Feinberg’s 2018 Distinguished Medical Alumnus Award.
Places like Northwestern University and the University of Michigan “are true jewels of American public life,” Mulholland states. “They are both dedicated to a really high set of ideals, including care of the sickest individuals, the advancement of knowledge and teaching the next generation of caregivers. Those are noble attributes that benefit the larger American society and are worth honoring and supporting.”
Mulholland, who graduated in 1971 from high school in Decatur, Illinois, chose Northwestern to pursue his undergraduate degree because the state of Illinois offered a college scholarship to residents who remained in state. “My experience as an undergraduate was so wonderful that I applied to the medical school as well,” says Mulholland, who earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1974.
Mulholland was drawn to general surgery because he enjoys taking care of sick patients and was attracted by the immediacy of results following the intervention. Plus, “there is a certain performance pressure when performing an operation that I relish,” he says. “General surgery is an extremely intimate form of medicine — especially when the patient is entrusting the surgeon to perform a big, risky operation. I have a very close, emotional relationship with my patients.”
Before landing at the University of Michigan in 1988, Mulholland spent seven years at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where he was first an intern and then a resident in surgery. He also earned his PhD in surgery there in 1985.
At Michigan, where Mulholland has been the chair of Surgery since 2002 and surgeon-in-chief at University Hospital since 2003, he performs mostly operations of the upper gastrointestinal track — technically demanding but intriguing work.
Apart from having a major clinical practice, Mulholland has been the principal investigator of an NIH-funded research laboratory since 1988. “Over the last decade, our research has been dedicated to the mechanisms that control appetite, food ingestion and metabolic rate,” he explains. “All these things are of central importance to American life in terms of ingestive behavior or obesity or dysregulated eating behavior and metabolism.”
“General surgery is an extremely intimate form of medicine — especially when the patient is entrusting the surgeon to perform a big, risky operation. I have a very close, emotional relationship with my patients.”
Mulholland is interested in understanding how abnormalities occur and hopes that the new knowledge can be used to treat obesity, prevent diabetes or modify behavior.
But he’s most proud of his work building the University of Michigan’s faculty and general surgery residency program, “both of which I have poured my heart and soul into for the last 30 years.”
Mulholland, who in 2004 was elected to the Institute of Medicine, says that laparoscopic surgery has revolutionized the field of surgery since he graduated from Northwestern. “There have also been major advances in biology and medical research that have made surgery a multidisciplinary endeavor to a much greater degree than it was when I was beginning my career.”
He believes that the formula for a happy life is very simple: rewarding work and a loving family. “My work has been stimulating and challenging,” he says. “I cannot imagine professionally doing anything else in my life, and I currently do not have any plans to retire.”
He and Patricia have four grown children: an elementary school teacher, a college professor, a biomedical engineer and an attorney.
In the winter, Mulholland likes to ski, and in the summer, sail. He is also an enthusiastic gardener. Perhaps more impressive, though, is that the general surgeon, now 64, fulfilled his promise of commuting to work by running nearly 10 miles roundtrip until he turned 60.
Michael and Patricia in 1978 and again in 2018.