At age 77 — a stage of life when many retire — Phil Pizzo is starting over. After a career in medicine, public service and academic administration littered with achievements and accolades, Pizzo is enrolling at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJRCA) seminary and training to become a rabbi.
His course of action is even more stunning given that Pizzo was raised Roman Catholic. He converted to Judaism two years ago.
But those who know him say this move is exactly in keeping with who Pizzo is: a man who embodies the ideals of lifelong learning and reinventing oneself.
“Some people want to just hang on forever. Not Phil,” said Pam Hamamoto, a former fellow at Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute (DCI), a program Pizzo founded and directed for the past 10 years that brings people who have had a successful career back to the classroom at Stanford. “He isn’t afraid to move on, even at his age and with the laurels he could rest on.”
Pizzo, who currently serves as founding director of DCI, is stepping down at the end of this academic year.
To Pizzo, change and continued challenge are part of a recipe for a fulfilling and purposeful life. “Looking back, I can see how the threads of my life came together to bring me here,” Pizzo said. “But I never would have thought it when I was young.”
Lifelong learning, lifelong healing
From his childhood in the Bronx, NY as a son of immigrant parents, to his advancement of life-saving research on childhood cancers and AIDS, to his tenure leading Stanford Medical School, learning, questioning and caring for others have always been core to Pizzo’s identity.
As a kid, Pizzo’s local library was his haven. He read on subjects ranging from biology to history and taught himself a great deal about each.
A voracious appetite for reading remains foundational to Pizzo’s life. He wakes up at 4:30 a.m. and listens to an audiobook during his roughly 10-mile daily run. He estimates that he finishes at least one book each week, and he’s hoping to get back into marathon training, so this number is likely to rise.
Even with the tens of thousands of books Pizzo has read, it’s his commitment to caring for others and fighting for a better life for patients — especially children — that has taught him the most.
One “youngster” (as he calls them) whom he remembers is Teddy, one of the two first “bubble boys.” Pizzo treated Teddy early in his career.
He became Teddy’s doctor just after finishing his residency in pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital, where he became interested in infectious disease and pediatric oncology. Pizzo was called to the National Institutes of Health to care for Teddy, the son of the director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI).
At dramatically high risk of infection due to aplastic anemia, or bone marrow failure, Teddy was confined to a sterile protected environment the size of a modern bathroom. He stayed there for seven years, during which time Pizzo became his primary doctor and only trusted caretaker.
Teddy’s condition was too advanced for treatments available at the time to save his life. He died after seven years under Pizzo’s care.
The experience instilled in Pizzo the importance and urgency of medical research. It also brought him “to the boundaries of my efforts to understand life, death and human suffering,” Pizzo wrote in an application essay to the AJRCA rabbinical school.
Leading research and advocacy
Just a few years later, in 1982, still early in his career at the age of 38, Pizzo made good on his learnings. At the time, he was running the pediatrics program at the NCI. HIV/AIDS had become a major national concern, embroiled in a climate of extreme anxiety and fear.
Seeing the implications of a burgeoning deadly disease for children, Pizzo was adamant that the NCI devote meaningful resources to studying it.
“It was an uphill battle,” Pizzo remembers. “Nurses didn’t want to be part of it, my colleagues didn’t want to be part of it. Everyone was scared.”
But Pizzo insisted. “I had to go and do battle with the FDA, with drug companies — everybody,” he recounts. “It was a slow, tortured process.”
Pizzo ended up steering the institute to take on pediatric HIV cases and eventually developed new retrovirals to treat the disease.
“His absolute devotion to treating HIV in children and finding answers was incredible to witness,” David Poplak, a medical fellow at the NCI during Pizzo’s tenure, and one of his oldest friends, told Stanford Medicine magazine. “His leadership and commitment to the cause made a profound impact in the field.”
Neurodevelopmental problems were a hallmark of the disease in children, which exhibited very differently from HIV in adults. Children who were talking would either stop advancing in their communication skills or see them rapidly decline. Mothers were witnessing their children who had learned to talk suddenly go mute.
Under Pizzo’s guidance, the NCI was able to develop drug delivery techniques that reversed this process.
An exemplary moment of Pizzo’s career happened in 1987 when he was chief of the Pediatric Oncology Branch at the NCI. President Ronald Reagan was scheduled to visit the facility ahead of announcing his special Commission on HIV. As chief, it was Pizzo’s job to show Reagan the importance of research funding and, daringly, to get a picture of the President embracing a child with AIDS in the ward.
When the moment arrived for Reagan to hold the child, he did nothing.
Resolved to deliver on the vital agenda of the Institute, Pizzo picked up the child, who was named Michael.
“I literally plunged this youngster into the President’s arms,” he recounted. The press snapped a photo and it appeared in The New York Times the following day.
The photo belied the President’s comfortability with the issue, but it changed the narrative around AIDS in America.
“I think it did more to destigmatize the disease than any other photo,” Poplak said. The shot humanized HIV with a stamp of cultural approval from the top.
“If you really care about something, you need to stand up for it and take the risk,” Pizzo said.
Fundamental to Pizzo’s philosophy about risk and reward, though, is the absolute disavowal of seeking credit or recognition for any of his work.
“I’ve never sought recognition or a position or title. It’s about the cause, not the credit,” Pizzo said.
Remarkable is how entirely Pizzo lives this ideal. “He’s such a role model,” says Mike Takagawa, a current DCI fellow. “He so perfectly exemplifies humility, integrity and strong leadership.”
After his career in medicine and research, Pizzo became the Dean of Stanford Medical School, serving in this role for 12 years.
Redefining longevity and purpose
Even with all his medical and leadership accomplishments, it’s the way Pizzo embodies a new way of thinking about longevity that those who know him say makes him truly inspirational.
Pizzo founded the DCI after contemplating his own transition out of his deanship at Stanford Medical School.
“I had seen early in my career the need for all of us to proactively transition before someone says it’s time to go,” Pizzo said.
He had an epiphany: what he had been planning applied more widely than to just his own path.
As lifespan has meaningfully increased over the past century, people at many moments in their mid- and late-career need opportunities to rethink and renew their purpose.
“This was a point to think transformatively about how individuals could change the arc of their own personal life course,” Pizzo said.
DCI was founded as a place for people to pause, take stock, reflect and re-engage in learning, with the goal of revitalizing their sense of purpose. Fellows have no requirements and can take courses freely across all the schools of the University.
The Institute, housed in Stanford’s Center for Longevity, also seeks to help educational institutions rethink the traditional mantra that universities are for educating young people.
Most broadly, DCI is about added impact for society.
“How can this growing demographic of people over 65 become an asset to society instead of a cost?” says Katherine Connor, Executive Director of DCI and 2018 program alumna. With a wealth of knowledge, skills and experience, this demographic is vastly underutilized.
So far, the program has been a success. “What’s not to love?” Connor said. “It’s an amazing chance to step back and reflect, reframe and think very intentionally about what you want to do with your next 25 to 30 years, and how you can make a difference in some way.”
Other universities are also picking up on Pizzo’s example. Notre Dame, UT Austin, the University of Minnesota, the University of Chicago and Oxford all count themselves among a growing group of universities establishing similar programs.
Turning to Judaism
And now Pizzo is walking the walk — starting rabbinic school this coming September.
Pizzo discovered Judaism through his wife, Peggy. As a spiritual woman, she has explored multiple religions including Catholicism, Buddhism and Quakerism. Peggy became involved with a local synagogue, Beth Am, because the community was supportive of early childhood development, an area where Peggy devoted her career. She had no intention of becoming involved in the religion.
Pizzo started to come along, accompanying his wife to weekly Friday night services.
“It just felt right,” Pizzo said. “From the very first time, it felt like this is where I belonged but didn’t know it before.”
“I used my usual method,” Pizzo explained; by this, he means he read hundreds of books — fiction and nonfiction — to learn everything he could about the Jewish religion and the history and philosophy of the Jewish people.
Phil and Peggy converted to Judaism together in 2019.
Seeking the usual level of depth and understanding he has his whole life, Pizzo became interested in becoming a Rabbi nearly concurrently with his interest in converting. He saw how much the desire made sense given his interest in philosophy and theology and his lifelong passion for being a healer, guide and advisor.
“I thought to myself, ‘If I could start over again, what would I do?’” Pizzo recounted. “And then I thought, ‘Well, can I do it?’”
He sees rabbinic study as an opportunity to learn a discipline new to him but deeply connected to values and interests he has held his whole life. He especially hopes to develop a greater understanding of the connection between physical and spiritual healing.
Pizzo envisions a new chapter of his life as a teacher and scholar, in addition to being a pastoral counselor and healer. He plans to develop learning opportunities for students to explore the intersections between science and religion and to write and publish about these topics for academic and public audiences.
“I’ve been lucky in my life to never have had a job,” Pizzo said. “I’ve always had a calling.”