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Leonard Napolitano, PhD

Leonard Napolitano, PhD

Leonard Napolitano, PhD


Dean, UNM School of Medicine (1972-1994)


Dr. Napolitano was born in 1930 in Oakland, CA, one of three children and the only son of Italian immigrants. He attended Santa Clara University where, in 1950, he quarterbacked the Broncos to an upset Orange Bowl win over Bear Bryant's Kentucky Wildcats.

Dr. Napolitano earned a PhD in anatomy from St. Louis University and proceeded to teach at Cornell Medical School and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. He moved to New Mexico in 1964 to become one of the seven founding faculty at the newly established School of Medicine at UNM. He became interim Dean of the medical school in 1972 and was named permanent Dean the following year, serving in that capacity until his retirement in 1994.

Dr. Napolitano presided over the dramatic expansion of the medical school and health sciences complex on the North campus of UNM, creating an environment known nationally and internationally for its innovative teaching curriculum. He was a highly effective advocate for the medical school at the legislature in Santa Fe. Due to these efforts, the medical school and the associated health sciences campus became one of New Mexico's chief assets. Among his many honors, Dr. Napolitano received the medical school's first Living Legend award in 2009.

Dr. Napolitano loved opera, Tony Bennett, good food, and good company. He was an avid reader and a passionate supporter of the arts. He loved his family and had deep and enduring friendships all over the world.


Unique for a dean of a medical school, Len was not a physician. Nonetheless, he was masterful in his interactions with the state legislature and a strong leader of the School of Medicine. I recall meetings where, with a cup of yogurt in one hand and a cigarette in the other, Len ended animated debates by looking over his glasses and firmly declaring, “da dean says…..” , which everyone understood to mean the discussion was over.

— Jeffrey Griffith, PhD, Executive Vice Dean Emeritus, UNM School of Medicine

I am grateful for the opportunity to celebrate the life of Len Napolitano, who over his almost 50 years of professional life in New Mexico was in reality the "Face Of New Mexico Medicine" in our state.

Len began as an athlete-scholar in the Oakland (California) high school where he turned down UCLA with its 600 member football team, and chose instead the Tiny Jesuit all male Santa Clara University only 40 miles from home and the size of his high school. As he pointed out, "One of the laws I learned is that, independent of size, you can only put eleven people on the field at one time. You can achieve excellence, even with limited size or resources ... something you learn the hard way."

Len majored in Biology & Chemistry, while as quarterback defeated the famous coach, Bear-Bryant and his powerhouse team at U. of Kentucky 1949. This experience may be where Len learned to pull us into a huddle, handing one of us an assignment to achieve a new initiative in science, education, or patient care outreach. Two major things happened in the next decade that focused his scientific life:

First, The Discovery of the Electron Microscopy, which was the Human Genome of the 1950's; Second, gaining his PhD in Anatomy at St Louis, mastering exploring the human body with Electron Microscopy at Cornell, and Assistant Professor appointment years at Pittsburgh, he felt like a cellular astronaut. He was now a "quarterback-scientist" at Pittsburgh; offered a tenured position, laboratory in a new five-story basic science building, and all the resources money could buy. The only problem was all of his colleagues were also anatomy professors, no fullback, wide receiver, defensive, back, and other scientific positions … in other words, no Team.

At that moment, in the Winter of 1963, an Anatomy colleague, John Ladman, proposed a crazy idea, inviting him to join a team of outstanding young scientists to start a two-year Medical School with no resources or buildings, in the sand and sagebrush of some far-off place, New Mexico. Len and Jane pulled up stakes and headed West with one crucial thing in his pocket, a grant to purchase his wonderful state-of-art Electron Microscope. Len said to me when I interviewed to join the team in 1967, ... "it felt like we all arrived in Conestoga wagons in the wild West, we circled them, built a fire, and couldn't believe our good luck."

Quarterback Len Napolitano had his wish, a fantastic team of 12 scientists in different fields: (Joe Scaletti among them). Len the Quarterback-Professor started calling plays with Dean Reg Fitts, as coach, signaling from a Quonset hut. The electron microscope was set up in a 7-UP Bottling plant, classes were scheduled in an old Mortuary, and they had 24 medical students selected from 600 applicants, a one-million-dollar grant from the Kellogg Foundation to build the basic science building as yet unbuilt, $25,000 dollars from the legislature to start a 2-year school, so what more could they possibly want? Every three weeks, he as his team of colleagues would play poker, and since this constituted a quorum of the faculty, simultaneously conducted any necessary medical school business. It seemed like academic life at its finest.

Eight years after setting up his tent, with many scientific publications with coauthors from his faculty TEAM, and many competitively earned grants, he was asked to accept the perfect position in the New Mexico Medical Game, the… "quarterback-dean" position for the School of Medicine Team. For the next 22 years Len perfectly positioned as quarterback, invited one faculty member after another into a corner to suggest an incredible opportunity, perfectly suited to the his or her skills, ready to attack for a World-Class outcome. One such scientific opportunity was cancer; another was the clinical care opportunity of Geriatric Care; another educational opportunity of Problem Based Curriculum, the discovery of Hantavirus disease, the discovery of immunization for cervical cancer, the development of the Implanted Insulin Pump, and more achievements than I have time to list.

In each case, he put no money or space on the table, knowing from his experience, that the highest degree of satisfaction and ultimate success always resulted from the faculty member establishing their own program through competitive grantsmanship and collaboration. On a number of occasions when asked about this approach, Len would say, looking from side to side and raising his eyebrows, "Some days I need more boxes of Kleenex and diapers for the faculty in my huddle."

It was this unique role of Quarterback-Dean that resulted in so many advances for the State of New Mexico. To mention only a few:

  • The Cigarette tax that supports Medical Research and the Cancer Center was his quarterbacking with a team of legislators in Santa Fe (Joe Cararro, and others).
  • The Creation of the NIH supported Cancer Research and Treatment Center with faculty team
  • The Creation of the NIH supported Clinical Research Center with a faculty team
  • The creation of the Office of the Medical Investigator and Forensic Medicine with Bob Anderson and team
  • The creation of the Medical Library and Information Center connected with the National Library of Medicine in Washington also as a team victory.

And on and on.

In 1994 when he retired, he never lost a stride as Quarterback-Scientist. He often would drop by my office with two hotdogs, offer me one, and sit down to suggest something that he thought I might want to pursue from the Vice President's Office. He was always correct.

Let me close by saying: "We each have experienced his thunderous Integrity, his constant insistence that Excellence can always be achieved, and his Wisdom of What Can Be Accomplished in a small state with limited resources that could indeed be World-Class, and of course the constant humor of Len Napolitano, 'The Face Of New Mexico Medicine' for the first half-century of the New Mexico School of Medicine".

— R. Philip Eaton MD, Emeritus Executive Vice President, UNM HSC

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