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A Conversation with Dr. Busse, Lifetime Contribution to the AAAAI and A/I Specialty Awardee

William Busse, MD, FAAAAI
When William Busse, MD, FAAAAI, neared the end of his internship, he was drawn towards surgery as a likely specialty. But his experiences in the United States Army changed all that.
“My focus on allergy and immunology was quite random, fortuitous, but very fortunate.” he said. “I entered the Army in 1968 to fulfill a required two-year service obligation and was assigned to the general medicine clinic at Madigan General Hospital in Tacoma, WA. About six months later, I was approached by Dr. Robert Lanzi, head of the Allergy Clinic. The Army had been unable to identify a trained allergist to replace Dr. Lanzi, who asked if I would be interested in getting on-the-job training and work in the Allergy Clinic until a trained specialist was found. Within six months I had become fascinated, captivated and intrigued with the study and care of allergic diseases, especially asthma. A trained allergist was found, but a resident in medicine had dropped out of Madigan’s training program and I was asked to serve as a resident on the chest and infectious diseases service for my remaining time in service. We had a lot of cases of asthma, an experience which further piqued my interest in this disease.”
A clinching decision for the specialty involved the care of a patient with severe, life-threatening asthma. During one hospitalization, she went into respiratory failure and required ventilation. “After treatment for this life-threatening event, she had improved but continued to have ongoing symptoms of asthma. At that time, I saw how devastating asthma could be; we didn’t understand the causes of this respiratory illness and our treatments were limited and not directed at the causes of her disease. At that point, I wanted to better understand asthma and, more importantly, how care and treatment could be improved to reduce the burdens and fears of this disease,” Dr. Busse said.
After leaving the service, he returned to the University of Wisconsin - Madison, completed his residency in medicine, and began his fellowship in A/I. Although the research bug had bitten him during fellowship, he went into practice for one year before joining the UW-Madison faculty in 1974 and remained there for the next 47 years.
Dr. Charles Reed had left UW-Madison in 1978, and Dr. Busse was the sole member of the Allergy and Immunology Section for the next two years. However, after assuming leadership of the Allergy and Clinical Immunology program, Dr. Busse was able to recruit new faculty. Over the next decades, the A/I program grew to over 15 faculty members.
When asked how it felt to be named the second-ever recipient of the Lifetime Contribution to the AAAAI and A/I Specialty Award, Dr. Busse said, “I feel honored, humbled, and most fortunate. For over 50 years I have been able to thoroughly enjoy what I do, be it in research, patient care, or leadership positions. Our research has centered on asthma, with one of the major themes being how the common cold virus, rhinovirus, causes asthma exacerbations.”
“What has been particularly enjoyable and rewarding is the development of a collaborative, team science approach to our investigations. This philosophy has brought together investigators from multiple disciplines and expertise to work collectively and collaboratively. This approach has led to advances in understanding the complexities of asthma and allowed for mentoring, particularly of the next generation. Collaboration and teamwork have been the most gratifying and fulfilling aspects of my career.”
William Busse, MD, FAAAAI
The AAAAI has been his scientific and clinical home for over 50 years. “The annual AAAAI meetings are a highlight for the year to learn of new advances in research and patient care, to renew friendships and meet new members of the AAAAI and our specialty. The AAAAI has also been a mentor to me, particularly in leadership. Through the AAAAI, I learned how to work in group settings and set consensus goals, many of which were designed to nurture the specialty. My involvement with the AAAAI has also provided an opportunity to work closely with our organization’s staff who are committed and dedicated to our success as an organization and specialty. The AAAAI is my professional family.”
Dr. Busse was AAAAI President from 2000-2001 and became the AAAAI Foundation Council Chair in 2015, positions in which he was honored to serve the organization and its members. The AAAAI Foundation has a very special place in his career as it reflects his interest and commitment to the next generation. “The AAAAI Foundation has undertaken the goal to promote the development of young faculty by providing grant support in early phases of their career, a vital and defining time for many. We all remember our first grant,” he said. “It is validation of the promise of our research ideas and provides personal confidence that others see your potential. Contributing to the direction that the AAAAI Foundation has followed in supporting the next generation is not only important to these individuals but also to the growth and advancement of our specialty. It is a fulfillment of our responsibility to the specialty.”
Dr. Busse and his wife, Judith Busse at the AAAAI Foundation 5K Run/Walk in Orlando in 2018
For those just starting their careers, his advice is “to be curious, participate and contribute. When you see a patient, ask yourself ‘why is this happening?’ Advances in improved patient care and research begin with asking why. The AAAAI is an effective organization for young physicians to participate in many aspects of our specialty. Finally, contribute to the multiple missions of the AAAAI. It is through these ongoing contributions that we grow and advance our specialty,” he said.
While Dr. Busse is Emeritus and retired, he feels fortunate to be able to complete some of his research projects. In particular, he notes, “A number of years ago my laboratory began collaboration with researchers in neuroscience. We initially focused on whether and how airway inflammation in asthma communicated with the brain. We found linkages between inflammation in asthma and altered brain health. Moreover, our collaborative research now suggests that asthma may be a risk for dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. These are new areas of research with considerable relevance and far-reaching clinical implications. My career has evolved to where I am ‘looking in rather than looking over’ research. I continue to be amazed and impressed with the progress that our specialty has made in research and the translation of these advances to improved patient care. The future looks very bright.”