As a young high school student in the mid-1950s, Jim Leyden expected to follow his father into the study of law. Little did he know that a few years later he would take a test at the Prep that would begin his path into medicine and an incredibly successful 60-year career as a Professor of Dermatology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. In gratitude for this and for all that the Prep has bestowed upon him, Jim and his wife Claudette have generously committed $1 million in support of an endowed scholarship as part of the Prep’s For Others Forever Campaign.
Dr. Leyden grew up in West Philadelphia on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania and attended a small private Catholic school named St. Leonard’s Academy. He remembers that his friend Rob Currie ’58 (now a legendary Jesuit priest) was the youngest of several brothers who had gone to the Prep and was headed there himself. Leyden recalls that this was his introduction to the school, and he took the entrance test.
During his high school years, it seemed unlikely that Leyden would become a doctor. In addition to his father and many family members practicing law, he also did not have a science class at the Prep. “At the end of the first year, they put us into tracks,” Leyden remembers. “Some of us were told we would be taking the classics track: Latin, Greek, and no science.”
Even with no science classes on his roster, Jim went ahead and took a career aptitude test during his senior year. Jim recalls the day fondly. “They met with me and said, ‘we have two extremely important things to tell you: one, under no circumstances should you become a forest ranger.’ I was from West Philly, I have never been camping in my life so that wasn’t a problem for me; ‘and two, we’ve been doing this test a long time and you are an extreme outlier. You MUST go to medical school.’”
Still, he wasn’t convinced and decided to study philosophy in college. While he took a “handful of science courses, chemistry, biology, and another, I didn’t really like it,” he says. Despite that, there was something in his mind that remembered that aptitude test and he decided to apply to the medical schools at Penn, Jefferson, and Temple. “I didn’t tell my parents, just did it on my own,” he laughs. “Somehow I got into all three. I told my parents that I would go to medical school and then law school. My father thought that was a great plan so off I went to Penn medical school.”
In medical school rotations during his third and fourth years, he got the opportunities to experience various services full time and fell in love with the profession. “It was obvious to me that I really ate it up,” he says. “I could not get enough of it and never made it to law school. That test was right on the money for me. If I hadn’t gone to the Prep, I never would have gone to medical school. It never would have crossed my mind.”
At first, the field of dermatology almost lost one of its most noted physicians before he started, as Leyden was initially interested in neurology. “There were several of us who were mesmerized by this guy who was the head of neurology and I was 100% committed to it,” he remembers. “Dermatology was not very visible when I was a student despite the fact that five of the most influential dermatologists in the world were at Penn at the time. We didn’t have a lot of exposure to them.”
However, he took an elective in dermatology and got to know the faculty. “The weekly grand rounds were absolutely electric as the faculty and the residents would come and there were just some spectacular interactions,” he says. “It was clear to me that there was a tremendous revolution going on, and it was just beginning. Dermatology was coming out of the dark ages and was about to enter the renaissance period. The guy in charge of the department could tell that I liked it and he encouraged me to pursue it, saying he would arrange a residency to work with one of the dermatologists on this cutting edge. We mapped out some things that I could be a lead person on and I was in.”
It turned out to be an incredibly good decision. “Before I finished my residency, I was giving lectures at various meetings,” he says. “I was even an invited guest speaker at societies and other organizations. I was in the right place at the right time. When people ask me if I’m still working, I say I have never worked a day in my life. I couldn’t wait to get to the hospital, to get to the lab. I didn’t want to go home at night, I loved my work so much.”
Dr. Leyden has spent the past 60 years at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is currently Professor Emeritus. He is best known for work in acne and was instrumental in the development of Retin-A and Accutane treatments. However, he believes the most significant contribution of his career came in working on preventing diaper rash.
“When my kids were children, it was a big problem,” he says. “A major factor was the skin that the diaper covered was excessively hydrated, and normal friction of a baby or toddler is enhanced on wet skin. The concept was to keep the skin dry and that’s the basis for Huggies and Pampers diapers. I worked with Kimberly-Clark, the makers of Huggies. I did this work and then researchers at Proctor and Gamble, the makers of Pampers, reproduced it to show it was a legitimate concept. Diaper rash went from being a huge problem to not much of one thanks to this work.”
Over the years, he has spent his career as a leader at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, where a Chair in his name is in final funding approval and the first Leyden Professor of Dermatology will be named by the end of the year. That plus his institution-altering gift to the Prep ensures that he has left a mark on two places that impacted his life.
Dr. Leyden has remained close to his Prep class over the years, helping to support a Class of 1958 Scholarship, created in 2018, as well as the Men for Others, Inc.
group that was started by some of his classmates to help students in financial need pay for lunch. Earlier this year, Dr. Leyden co-authored an inspirational letter to his classmates, encouraging them to support the class scholarship. The response to that letter has been outstanding, and included substantial, meaningful gifts from alumni who had not been previously engaged with the efforts.
“As I learned in fundraising, there are three kinds of people: people who will never give anything no matter what, those who support institutions that helped them, and, within that group, there are people capable of giving more,” he says. “The Prep and Penn’s medical school were really important to me becoming whatever I have become. My wife was enthusiastically in agreement so we are supporting the Prep and Penn Medical School with gifts.”