Washington People: Douglas L. Mann

From music to medicine, Mann finds his passion in healing hearts

Robert Boston

Lora Staloch, research lab manager (left), and Douglas L. Mann, MD, look at data from research done on mouse tissue in Mann’s laboratory in the Clinical Sciences Research Building. “He’s not afraid to take on a new area of cardiovascular research,” says Andrew I. Schafer, MD, chief of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College. “Doug Mann comes as close as one possibly can to being the prototypical, multithreat physician-scientist.”

Though some cardiologists may have dabbled in musical pursuits from an early age, few have opened for Aerosmith.

How does one who dropped out of college to play drums and follow dreams of being a professional musician end up chief of cardiology at a major medical school?

“I needed a day job,” says Douglas L. Mann, MD, the Tobias and Hortense Lewin Professor of Medicine and chief of the cardiovascular division at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Born in New York City, Mann grew up in rural Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia. As a child, Mann said he was an underwhelming student, mostly because he couldn’t keep a sustained focus on any one thing.

“I was interested in everything but excelled at nothing, including schoolwork,” he says.

But his science projects revealed an interest in biology and offered a glimpse of his future path to medicine. He investigated how amoebas move and asked how changes in the environment influence the development of frog eggs into tadpoles and tadpoles into frogs.

“I always liked the discovery part of science,” Mann says. “I think part of my interest arose with the space race, when President Kennedy encouraged young people to focus on careers in science. My dad and I did experiments together in the kitchen, much to my mother’s chagrin.”

Education is a gift

But music was a strong draw as well. As a teenager, Mann decided to stop the clarinet lessons his parents supported and switch to an instrument with a bit more cachet.

“I wanted to play saxophone,” Mann says. “But, at the time, my parents couldn’t afford one. I realized I probably wasn’t going to get a date if I played clarinet, so I switched to drums.

“My father was horrified, but my social life did improve,” he says with a laugh.

At Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., Mann majored in chemistry and played drums in Quadriga, a four-man jazz band named for the ancient Greek and Roman chariots pulled by four horses side-by-side. They had some success, opening in 1972 for an up-and-coming Aerosmith.

“They were touring nationally and needed a ‘sacrificial’ band locally to go on before their main act,” Mann says.

His experience in the band and love of music led Mann to quit school and try to make it as a professional musician. During the day, he washed cars. At night, he played music, most of the time for very little money. After a year and a half, he began to realize that there was no long-term career for him as a musician.

So he returned to college, much to his parents’ delight.

“I think my passion for learning came from the experience of leaving school and having to work jobs that were not very interesting,” he says. “After I came back, I realized that education is a gift, not a burden.”

Back in school, his interests shifted from chemistry to biology, as he got excited about understanding the biology of living organisms.

“I began to see that you could apply biology to understand why people got sick and use that type of information to make them better,” Mann says. “That’s when I became interested in medicine.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree in biology from Lafayette College in 1974, he landed at Temple University in Philadelphia for medical school and residency. There, he met his wife of 28 years, Laura Ann Colletti, MD, who also is a physician.

The prototypical physician-scientist

Mann’s early career crisscrossed the country as he sought the best training, from a cardiology fellowship at the University of California, San Diego, to clinical experience at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, to basic laboratory research back at Temple and at the Medical University of South Carolina. In 1990, when Andrew I. Schafer, MD, then chief of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, was looking for a chief of cardiology, Mann was the first choice.

At Baylor, Mann studied inflammation and its role in heart failure, a condition where the heart no longer can pump enough blood to the body. Though few were studying inflammation then, Mann says a colleague he considers a mentor, Mark L. Entman, MD, professor of medicine at Baylor, encouraged him to pursue science he found exciting rather than the hot topic of the moment.

Mapping out the cellular pathways that showed inflammation prevented heart muscle cells from contracting, Mann and his collaborators have made fundamental discoveries in understanding the failing heart. His work has shown that a molecule once thought only to be harmful also can protect heart cells, depending on the context.

“Doug separated out the harmful and protective mechanisms on a biological and molecular level,” Entman says. “That kind of thing makes his work unique.”

Schafer agrees.

“He’s not afraid to take on a new area of cardiovascular research, which may be very risky,” says Schafer, now chief of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. “He’s also an outstanding physician and mentor. He can take unformed trainees and mold them into accomplished academic cardiologists. Doug Mann comes as close as one possibly can to being the prototypical, multithreat physician-scientist. He does everything well, simultaneously.”

In 2009, Mann brought this experience to St. Louis.

“One of the things that drew me to Washington University was the cardiology faculty, who are outstanding,” Mann says. “This is a high-quality place with a commitment to scholarship and a great partnership with Barnes-Jewish Hospital.”

Courtesy photo

Douglas L. Mann and his wife, Laura, on a trip to Santorini, Greece.

Mann continues to study inflammation and focuses on understanding how the heart heals after damage or disease.

“Everybody has studied what makes the heart sick, but we haven’t understood what makes it well,” he says. “If we could figure out the biology that promotes recovery of the failing heart muscle and translate this to patients, I would be enormously gratified.”

Beyond laboratory research, Mann is involved with numerous National Institutes of Health-sponsored clinical trials. One is looking at ventricular assist devices for patients in early stages of heart failure. Another is focused on Coumadin use in patients with heart failure. Coumadin is a common blood thinner that protects against blood clots but raises the risk of bleeding. Mann also was instrumental in opening the Heart and Vascular Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine.

While Mann is excited about new directions in his work, he still loves music. Because of close neighbors, though, he no longer plays drums. Wanting a good home for his drums when he moved to St. Louis, he gave them to Michael Nash, who works for the university’s mail service.

“Mike tells me about his gigs, so I live vicariously through him,” Mann says. “I remember tearing up, carrying the drums to his truck. But he’s playing them, and that’s what it’s about.”

Fast facts about Douglas L. Mann

Favorite music: Likes most music, but jazz is a favorite, particularly Miles Davis
Favorite books: Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon; Underworld by Don DeLillo; and anything by David Foster Wallace
Family: Wife, Laura Ann Colletti, MD; daughter Erica, graduated from Boston University and working in development for Vineyard Theater, an off-Broadway theater in New York City; son, Jonathan, a recent film school graduate from Hofstra University; and daughter Stephanie, studying international affairs at Boston University