Lives Lived

Tadataka Yamada, M.D.

Winter 2022
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Yamada with his grandson

Tadataka “Tachi” Yamada, M.D., a pioneer in drug and vaccine development who helped forge numerous biotech companies and spent five years at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as head of global health, died Wednesday, August 4, 2021, of natural causes at his home in Seattle. He was 76.

Tachi was born in Japan in 1945 and attended boarding school in Andover, Massachusetts, before graduating from Stanford University and from New York University Medical School. He completed his residency in internal medicine at the Medical College of Virginia. After completing three years at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and two years as a GI fellow at UCLA, he joined the faculty at UCLA and rose to associate professor before being recruited to the University of Michigan.

In 1983, Yamada became the chief of gastroenterology at the U-M Medical School. In 1990, he rose to chair of the Department of Internal Medicine, leading hundreds of U-M physicians and the care of hundreds of thousands of patients.

“He was a visionary, able to imagine both possibilities and the practical steps required to achieve them,” says Joseph Kolars, M.D., Senior Associate Dean for Education and Global Initiatives, the Josiah Macy, Jr., Professor of Health Professions Education, and professor of internal medicine, who was recruited to U-M in 1986 by Yamada.

A scientist and scholar in gastroenterology, Yamada was the author of more than 150 original manuscripts on the subject and won innumerable awards for contribution to the field, including the SmithKline & French Award for Distinguished Achievement in Gastrointestinal Physiology from the American Physiological Society, the Friedenwald Medal from the American Gastroenterological Association, and the Watanabe Prize in Translational Research from Indiana University and Eli Lilly & Co. Yamada also received an honorary degree from U-M and won the 2021 Michigan Medicine Alumni Society Distinguished Alumni Award.

After leaving U-M in 1996, Yamada joined SmithKline Beecham, which later became GlaxoSmithKline, where he was chairman of research and development. He later joined the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as president of its global health program. Subsequently, he became executive vice-president of Takeda Pharmaceuticals. Most recently, he was a Venture Partner at Frazer Healthcare Partners and a Managing Partner in Mountainfield LLC. At the time of his death, he chaired the boards of Phathom Pharmaceuticals, Passage Bio, Athira Pharma, and Prometheus Biosciences, was a member of the Board of Directors of the Clinton Health Access Initiative and of U-M Health; and served as a director of a number of private life science companies.

Of the many enduring aspects of Yamada’s career and life, he oversaw $9 billion in programs that were directed at addressing health challenges of the developing world while with the Gates Foundation. He created the Grand Challenges Explorations program that focused on innovative ideas and focused on metrics and measurement of impact for the programs in the developing world. He forged several new partnerships, including with the World Health Organization, UNICEF, Global Fund, and others.

Overall, Yamada’s role at the Gates Foundation was transformative, with global impact on the health of world populations. He has helped catalyze the global effort to eradicate Hepatitis C, a project involving the Clinton Health Access Initiative partnering with medical liver societies of the U.S., Europe, Asia, and Latin America.

Most recently, Yamada and his wife Leslie gave Michigan Medicine a $10M gift to establish the University of Michigan Center for Global Health Equity. The program was launched in early 2020 and aims to accelerate work by U-M faculty, staff, and students to address inequities in health in the poorest nations and in disadvantaged populations in middle-income countries.

Tachi and Leslie Yamada
Tachi and Leslie Yamada

“A great challenge of our time is that millions, mostly children in the poorest countries, die each year unnecessarily from illnesses that can be prevented or treated,” the Yamadas wrote at the time of their gift. “We hope that our gift will help to catalyze action that will make a meaningful contribution toward correcting this unacceptable inequity.” 

Building on the Yamadas’ vision, the center’s initial concept was developed by a team led by Kolars, who is director of the U-M Global REACH program, and John Z. Ayanian, M.D., M.P.P., who leads the U-M Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation and holds professorships in the Medical School, School of Public Health, and Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. 

“I’ve been extremely fortunate to have known Tachi for over 35 years,” says Kolars. “Perhaps his most endearing attribute has been his commitment to mentorship. He had a real gift for seeing the potential in those who sought his counsel and the tenacity to stay with them to see that they achieved their goals. ‘I will not let you fail!’ he often said. I cannot tell you how many times I witnessed Tachi prioritize the development of others pursuing a diversity of career paths.

“His ability to lift those around him to unimagined heights stands at the heart of his legacy. The University of Michigan and the Center for Global Health Equity are fortunate to occupy one small corner of that legacy, and those of us who knew him personally are luckier still. The friendship we shared and the lessons he passed on — whether by design or simply by his quiet example — continue to inspire as we strive to create a healthier, more equitable world.”

 

This obituary draws on ones written by Kolars and John Carethers, M.D., professor of gastroenterology, as well as articles previously published in Medicine at Michigan.