This blog post is based on remarks given at the May 17 Milton Corn Memorial Concert.
Yesterday, I was honored to join in a beautiful celebration for the life of Dr. Milton Corn, an amazing man who I regarded as my adviser, colleague, and—most importantly—my friend. I would like to thank his wife Gilan and all of Milt’s friends and family for creating that wonderful moment of togetherness. Many of us knew Milt when he was Dean of the School of Medicine at Georgetown University or in his role with the National Library of Medicine, and I suspect that some even knew him as a bon vivant around town!
While I’m sure many of you can remember the moment you met Milt, I actually can’t—in my mind, it seems like he was an ever-present professional of the big data and scientific technology community! As a newly minted PhD in the late 1980s/early 1990s, I remember Milt as eminent in our field… and that was 30 years ago! I got to know Milt as part of the medical informatics community that was just emerging as a research powerhouse. Milt was a mentor to me; he reached into the visions I had for—and breathed life into—the ways technology could support patient engagement. He was always supportive, but he was also a hard questioner who wanted to know the value of the community’s investment.
Milt brought so many gifts to the field of biomedical informatics. He brought his wisdom as a physician executive to a fledgling field, applying his gentle but direct guidance to inspire research in the domain. Milt also funded my research; I remember a phone call one August afternoon over 20 years ago when Milt said, “Do you still need money for this project? Because we have some end-of-year money for you, and it’s available if you want to use it,” which of course let us advance our original ComputerLink project.
Interestingly enough, I actually know very little about Milt’s role at NLM, although I know a lot about his contributions! He joined our beloved NLM in 1990 during the first decade of applying computer technology to health care, in support of Don Lindberg’s visionary leadership. Milt served as NLM’s ambassador to the broader academic and research community as both their instigator and a supporter of many novel research ideas. Milt was in love with ideas, but he never let that love cloud his judgment or interfere with his expectation that emerging fields needed good science. He was as enchanted with a novel approach to genetic analysis as he was with securing proposals to write important books that detailed the history of medicine.
Milt became a colleague, a trusted advisor, and someone I could talk with about biomedical informatics. We could laugh about the field while enjoying its growth. Later, Milt became my friend. We shared family stories, our love for our children, and the challenges we faced with them. I loved his humor—he had the best sardonic laugh in the world. And then, surprise of all surprises, Milt became my employee, which had nothing to do with his actions, but with my actions! I remember being very mindful of Milt during my first NIH interview, where one of the committee members asked what it was going to be like for me, and I said I’m now going to be the boss of someone who I felt that I have learned from my whole career… it’s going to be fabulous!
Not that it wasn’t daunting; for 25 years, my career success depended on Milt! And he was wise: on my first day on the job, Milt stopped by with a little gift—a bag of peanut M&Ms! What a way to level the playing field. Sometime during those first few weeks, Milt came to my office and said, “Anytime you need my desk for someone else, you just let me know, and I’ll go home.” Every year he would say that sentence, and every year I thought not yet, I need you here. I couldn’t be without Milt, the magic maker.
After working more closely with Milt, I realized his judgment, discernment, and incredibly keen sense of what was a good investment—and, more importantly, what wasn’t—were critical to how NLM functioned. Later in our time at NLM, we needed a single scientific director to unify our intramural programs, and Milt took this responsibility on. Adding the title of Acting Scientific Director to his already stretched ambit, Milt aligned our two very strong intramural research groups: one addressing computational biology, and the other, clinical health informatics. He guided these two very disparate groups of investigators into a single structure… not totally unified, but respectful of each other and clearly willing to meet halfway across the bridge.
I turned to Milt many times as counselor to my position. Navigating the federal waters as director of a venerable institute like the NIH National Library of Medicine was a challenge—even for someone who thought herself quite sophisticated in dealing with complex organizations. Periodically, I’d walk over to Milt’s office, settle into one of his nice leather chairs, and lay out whatever issue I was confronting or a personality that perplexed me. Through a question or a brief comment, he led me to solutions, insights, and confidence, but none more so than the day he said, “Your job is important, and you deserve to have fun—so make sure that you do that!” I am brimming with tears as I remember how his strength made me strong!
In October of 2020, Milt told me that the pandemic was good for him. What an odd statement, I thought. However, he revealed that our maximum telework posture, with everyone working from home, eliminated the need for him to make the long commute from Virginia to Bethesda. Working from home made it possible for him to continue to engage. And engage he did! He remained a mentor all the way up until his very last weeks at the National Library of Medicine. I remember the night he called me and said, “I don’t think I can come back to work anymore,” but he reminded me, “You can call me if you need me.” I took his generous offer to heart and took it up as often as I could.
Above all, Milt was important to me, to the National Library of Medicine, and to the entire scientific and clinical world. Thank you.
Dr. Brennan is the Director of the NIH National Library of Medicine, a leader in biomedical informatics and computational health data science research and the world’s largest biomedical library. Under her leadership, NLM has grown its intramural and extramural research enterprise, extended stakeholders’ access to credible and reliable health information, and acquired and preserved biomedical literature using cutting-edge digital research and outreach. Read more about Dr. Brennan.