Philip Lief, M.D.: Esteemed Colleague, Mentor, Teacher, and Friend
Einstein mourns the death of Philip Lief, M.D., professor emeritus of medicine, who died on August 23 at age 81. During his long and storied career spanning four decades at Einstein and Montefiore, Dr. Lief loved the institutions deeply.
"He knew everything about everything and everybody, in the two institutions, and the department," said Victor Schuster, M.D., professor of medicine and senior vice-dean who also is former chair of medicine. "His wisdom and knowledge saved me many times from making wrong decisions."
That wisdom and knowledge was hard-earned, garnered from Dr. Lief’s own experiences serving in a variety of leadership roles, including associate vice chair of medicine from 1991 to 1998 (while serving as interim director of Montefiore’s Internal Medicine Residency Program Director); as vice chair of medicine in 1998 under Dr. James Scheuer; and as interim chair of medicine, in 1999, when Dr. James Hardin was named chair. He was known for his steadfast work ethic – the first to come, and last to leave – and for having the highest standards.
Born in 1940 at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, and raised in Jamesburg, New Jersey, Dr. Lief was the son of a country doctor whose patients often paid him with local produce from their farms. After graduating cum laude from Yale, he received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. He first came to Montefiore for residency training in 1965; during his last year of residency, he met Edna, his wife of 51 years, on a blind date arranged by a colleague.
After residency, Dr. Lief left the Bronx to train as a research fellow in nephrology at Tufts University in Boston. He then spent two years serving during the Vietnam War at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Oakland, California, where he was head of medicine and an attending nephrologist. Following his military service, Dr. Lief returned to the Bronx in 1972 as an instructor of medicine and attending nephrologist. During his four decades at Montefiore, he rose to the rank of professor and served as an outstanding physician, researcher, mentor, and leader until his retirement in early 2017.
"Dr. Lief was a consummate clinician, a brilliant teacher, and a role model to many," said Yaron Tomer, M.D., chair of medicine. "His legacy lives on in the numerous physicians he trained to always seek excellence in patient care."
In 1992, Dr. Lief served as co-program director for the fledgling Internal Medicine Residency Program at Montefiore. He then became its interim program director, a role he remained in for three years while serving concurrently as associate vice chair of medicine.
While others might have coasted through this interim period, Dr. Lief was not typical.
Jeffrey Weiss, M.D., associate professor of medicine, first met Dr. Lief as a senior resident and considers him his first real mentor. "He drove us hard, and I was blown away by his knowledge and pursuit of the best path for each patient," said Dr. Weiss, who is also Montefiore's institutional medical director now.
"He brought in articles every day and I wondered if he ever slept," Dr. Weiss recalled. "During the first of several Yankee games to which he invited me, I saw his humor and personal side. When I naively pitched starting academic hospitalist programs and running the medical service as a chief resident, everyone laughed but Phil. He gave me a chance and always had my back."
He added, "There are thousands of Montefiore alumni across the country, like me, who have Phil's voice in their heads, encouraging them always to do more and to think more critically about their patients, and how to be a more effective physician."
Joseph Deluca, M.D., associate professor of medicine, first met Dr. Lief in 1991-92, during his third-year clerkship at Einstein and sub-internship at Jacobi Medical Center, where Dr. Lief gave resident conferences. Dr. DeLuca, now the associate division head of the division of general internal medicine and medical director of the Comprehensive Health Care Center, was among the internal medicine firm leaders during a transitional time in the residency program. He recalled, "Dr. Lief followed the Socratic teaching method and forced us learners to think on our feet. He dedicated much time and effort to understand all the ACGME requirements and regulations and worked to firm up the residency program. During this period, the IM residency underwent a comprehensive RRC residency review, to which Dr. Lief dedicated himself tirelessly."
After stepping down as director of the Internal Medicine Residency Program in 1998, Dr. Lief worked on the renal consult service and as a teaching hospitalist. He led and actively participated in the department's teaching and training programs, providing morning and noon conferences and chief of service and hospitalist conferences, and served on countless Montefiore and Einstein committees.
Will Southern, M.D., M.S., professor of medicine at Einstein and division chief of hospital medicine at Montefiore, was a medical student when he met Dr. Lief in 1991. "My strongest impression was that he was an outstanding doctor, with an extensive knowledge base, who held all learners to a high standard while being nice about it," he recalled.
When Dr. Southern returned to Montefiore and Einstein in 2002 to interview for a position, he got to see another side of his former teacher. "I was struck by the funny person and Yankee fan that I had not seen before," he said. "As I developed a career and took on new roles, Phil was always there as a friend, mentor, and advocate. He was the best I have ever seen at giving chief of service rounds. His extraordinary breadth of medical knowledge matched his clinical reasoning and the ability to explain that reasoning to all levels of learners. He was a master teacher."
Role Model and Inspiration
Dr. Lief's love for medicine inspired his son, Michael, and daughter, Amy, to follow in their father's footsteps. Michael, an internist who was a medicine resident and infectious diseases fellow at Montefiore, and Amy, a pediatrician, who did her pediatric residency training here, saw firsthand how fulfilling a career as a doctor could be.
"My father showed me that it was an honor to care for others and that a physician has a deep responsibility to pay close attention to details and to work to make honest and compassionate decisions," said Amy. "He showed me the importance of reading and researching and asking questions to do the best job possible. He was also a terrific judge of intelligence and character."
Indeed, there were many sides to Philip Lief. He was a serious athlete, having played three varsity sports in high school. He was a die-hard Yankees fan, an opera lover, and a passionate gardener. Above all, he was a devoted family man.
"He worked harder than anyone else I've encountered in my life," said Amy, "but somehow, he made it home each night for family dinners and cooked us hot breakfasts on the weekends."
Michael recalled, "I don't often remember my father saying no, whether it was having a catch in the waning sunlight of the backyard or spending countless summer evenings with a son obsessed with catching fish, but too young to do it himself."
Dr. Lief leaves his children and their spouses, his wife Edna, his brothers Jonathan and Peter, and four grandchildren.
Inside Einstein thanks Amy Sacks and the department of medicine for providing the information for this in memoriam. To share a memory of Dr. Lief, visit our Leave a Remembrance page.
Posted on: Wednesday, September 15, 2021