A respected Indiana University School of Medicine faculty member and trailblazing gastroenterologist has been given the Sagamore of the Wabash, one of the state’s highest honors.
Douglas Rex, MD, a distinguished professor emeritus in the Department of Medicine at IU, was formally given the title Thursday, Sept. 28, during a boisterous celebration outside the Indiana University Health endoscopy suite named in his honor. He is also a physician-scientist at Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center.
The Sagamore of the Wabash can go to Hoosiers and non-Hoosiers alike, and although there is no full or official list of Sagamores, past recipients include David Letterman, Ryan White, Muhammad Ali and President Harry Truman. The award is typically bestowed to those who have made significant impacts in Indiana or have gone “above and beyond” in their respective field.
And Rex certainly fits the bill.
Rex is recognized as the nation’s leading expert in the completion of difficult colonoscopies and the resection of large colorectal polyps. Patients from all over the region come to Indianapolis for the type of endoscopic resection of polyps that Rex provides, which is associated with lower morbidity and mortality and comes at a lower cost compared to surgical resection; and for colonoscopies that other doctors could not complete.
Rex was nominated for the Sagamore by the Director of the Division of Gastroenterology & Hepatology, Mohammad Al-Haddad, MS, MD.
In his nomination letter, Al-Haddad said Rex has performed more than 100,000 endoscopic procedures in his career and is believed to have performed more medical procedures than any other IU Health physician in any specialty.
Rex is also an active clinical researcher who has had a great impact on gastroenterology
Al-Haddad wrote that Rex has published more than 330 original research papers, more than 235 invited papers, 75 editorials, 65 book chapters, and written more than 40 national guidelines on the performance of colonoscopy, colorectal cancer screening and colorectal polyp resection. Al-Haddad went on to note 50 research-related medical “firsts” that Rex is credited with.
At the award celebration – after music, drinks and several heartfelt addresses from friends and family – Rex thanked those gathered for supporting him. He noted that without the great team in his clinical office and the wonderful family he has at home, he wouldn’t have the success he does.
Friends call Rex “a Hoosier inside and out.”
Born in Ligonier, Indiana (a small town near Fort Wayne) in 1954, Rex left the state only to complete his undergraduate studies at Harvard College.
Rex said he was committed to the idea of attending medical school by the time he graduated high school; and he returned to Indiana after graduating from Harvard in 1976 to fulfill that goal and attended IU School of Medicine.
He graduated from the medical school in 1980 with highest honors and received the John Hickam Award for the outstanding student in internal medicine. He was also named an outstanding student in surgery and became a member of Alpha Omega Alpha honorary medical society.
Rex completed the rest of his medical education and training with IU: He was a resident in internal medicine from 1980 to 1982; did a fellowship in gastroenterology from 1982 to 1984; and finished his residency as Chief Medical Resident in internal medicine in 1985.
Rex then joined the IU School of Medicine faculty, and he has remained with IU’s Department of Medicine for nearly 40 years. Notably, he served as Director of Endoscopy for 25 years; and he now holds the titles of Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Medicine at IU School of Medicine and Chancellor’s Professor at IUPUI. The endoscopy suite at the IU Health Spring Mill Surgery Center was named in his honor in 2013.
Away from the school, his roles have been vast and consequential.
Rex was elected Governor of the American College of Gastroenterology for Indiana in 1990 and rose to become chair of the organization's Board of Governors. He eventually became President of the American College of Gastroenterology in 2004. After rotating off that board, he was named to the Governing Board of the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy and rose through those ranks to become president in 2021.
He is the only member of the IU School of Medicine gastroenterology division to lead both societies and only a handful of individuals nationally to have ever served in both roles.
At work, Rex is known for his hard work and great sense of humor. He is often the first one in the office in the morning and the last to leave at night, Al-Haddad said.
At home, Rex is just as caring, dedicated and passionate, his oldest daughter, Emilie Rex, said to the gathered crowd.
“Our father taught us that practicing being passionate and having purpose in our everyday lives builds the muscle we need to apply that passion in our professional lives,” she said. “As we have seen him demonstrate time and again, that practice prepares us to put our passion to work and do the right thing.”