History of the Division
John T. Sessions, Jr., MD
1952 – 1978
The Division of Digestive Diseases and Nutrition was founded in 1952 by John T. Sessions, Jr., MD who had served as an assistant in medicine at Boston University under Franz J. Ingelfinger, who later became editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine. Throughout his 25 years as division chief, and nearly five decades at UNC, Dr. Sessions was regarded as an international leader in gastroenterology, an outstanding clinician, and a revered teacher who influenced several generations of medical students, residents, and gastroenterology fellows.
Don W. Powell, MD
1978 – 1992
Don W. Powell, MD, served as chief from 1978 to 1992. A basic scientist who studied intestinal electrolyte transport, Dr. Powell established UNC as a leading GI research program. Key to these efforts included launching a new, NIH-sponsored core center in digestive disease research, and developing several fellows and junior faculty members (including Drs. Douglas Drossman, Roy Orlando, Robert Sandler and Balfour Sartor) into world-class researchers. Dr. Powell left UNC in 1990 to become Chair of Medicine at the University of Texas-Galveston.
David A. Brenner, MD
1992 – 2003
David A. Brenner, MD, led the division from 1992 to 2003. A basic scientist expert in hepatic fibrosis and porphyria, during Dr. Brenner’s tenure the Gastroenterology (journal) Editorial Board was headquartered in Chapel Hill. Dr. Brenner greatly augmented the division’s translational research capacity, especially in liver disease. Dr. Brenner left UNC in 2003 to become Chair of Medicine at Columbia University and later became the Dean of UC San Diego School of Medicine.
Robert S. Sandler, MD, MPH
2003 – 2013
Robert S. Sandler, MD, MPH served as chief from 2003 to 2013. Considered the father of modern GI epidemiology and a “mentor of mentors”, under Dr. Sandler’s leadership the newly renamed “Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology” grew to over 40 faculty members, achieved more than $20 million in annual research funding, and expanded clinical programs across a range of areas.
Nicholas J. Shaheen, MD, MPH
2013 – Today
Nicholas J. Shaheen, MD, MPH assumed leadership of the division in 2013. He founded the Center for Esophageal Diseases and Swallowing, which has grown into one of the premier research and clinical programs in esophageal diseases in the country. During this time, the Division doubled its activity in advanced endoscopy, and expanded clinical services to multiple new locations both in the Triangle and throughout North Carolina.
Since it was founded, the Division has made key contributions to understanding digestive and liver diseases. Notable focus areas have included GI epidemiology, epithelial cell biology, intestinal inflammation, Barrett’s esophagus, eosinophilic esophagitis, viral hepatitis, inflammatory bowel diseases, and functional GI disorders.
The Division has accomplished much of this work through The Center for Gastrointestinal Biology and Disease, the longest continuously funded digestive disease center in the U.S. The Center was first funded in 1985 with the name Core Center in Diarrheal Diseases. In 1988, the center changed its name to the current Center for Gastrointestinal Biology and Disease. A 2018 study from the University of Illinois, Chicago, using research funding and impact of research as metrics, named UNC the top academic GI division in the nation (Skef W et al. Gastroenterology 2018;154 (6):S461). Additionally, in 2021, UNC was ranked 6th nationally and 11th internationally in the US News Best Global Universities for Gastroenterology Research.
In 1954 Dr. Roger Winborne became UNC GI’s first fellow. Since then, over 150 fellows have graduated from the program. Fellowship alumni have assumed leading positions in academia, industry, and community practice.
As the division grew and the field advanced, the division launched specialized training programs in research (Digestive Disease Epidemiology and GI Basic Science) and clinical practice (advanced endoscopy, inflammatory bowel diseases, transplant hepatology, and esophageal diseases).
In 1990, Robert Sandler established an NIH-sponsored T32 training grant in digestive disease epidemiology which has since been continuously funded. Graduates of program include many current UNC faculty members (Nicholas Shaheen, Evan Dellon, Spencer Dorn, Millie Long, Sid Barritt, Anne Peery, Seth Crockett, Swathi Eluri, Craig Reed, Andrew Moon., and Michael Dougherty), as well as faculty members at other universities, including Miami, UT Southwestern, Colorado, Indiana, Dartmouth, Buffalo, Ohio State, Vanderbilt, and Harvard.
UNC GI has also hosted a second T32 program, in basic and translational sciences, for over 2 decades. Under the direction of R. Balfour Sartor, this program supports 1-2 MD, PhD, or MD/PhD trainees in a wide variety of disciplines. This program has spawned translational scientists working at multiple institutions, with an emphasis in mucosal immunology and liver disease.
Since 1952, the division has provided expert, compassionate care to the countless North Carolinians. Division faculty have been widely recognized as leading clinicians, including more Best Doctors than any other academic or clinical GI program in the Southeastern U.S.
UNC GI faculty have remained at the forefront of clinical care and co-authored many national clinical practice guidelines. Key advances over the years have included diagnosis and management of acid-peptic and esophageal diseases (H Pylori, H2 blockers, proton pump inhibitors, diagnostic and therapeutic endoscopy), functional GI disorders (classification, symptom-based diagnosis, and biopsychosocial management approach), inflammatory bowel disease (imaging, endoscopy, 5-ASAs, immunomodulators, biologics), liver diseases (serological testing, antiviral medications, liver transplantation), and GI malignancy (flexible fiberoptic endoscopy, screening colonoscopy, advanced therapeutic endoscopy, endoscopic ultrasound).
As the division’s clinical program has grown, it has expanded beyond Chapel Hill to Hillsborough, Pittsboro, and Raleigh, as well as hepatology outreach clinics in Asheville, Wilmington, and Greenville. At various times, faculty have cared for patients beyond Chapel Hill at Dorothea Dix Hospital, John Umstead Hospital at Butner, VA Hospital at Fayetteville, Central Prison in Raleigh, and many AHEC-affiliated hospitals and clinics.
UNC GI faculty have consistently served in key leadership positions within the American Gastroenterological Association (including Don W. Powell and Robert S. Sandler as presidents), American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases (including Michael W. Fried as president), American College of Gastroenterology, the NC Society of Gastroenterology, NIH study sections, the National Commission of Digestive Diseases, and various editorial boards (including David Brenner prior Editor-in-Chief of Gastroenterology and Millie Long as current Editor-in-Chief of the American Journal of Gastroenterology), advisory boards, and foundation committees.