Following his dream brought Hilmers down to earth

David Hilmers ’72 took a circuitous route back to Cornell—think millions of miles.

David Hilmers ’72 (Credit: Envisage Studio)
David Hilmers ’72 (Credit: Envisage Studios)

Between his graduation and his most recent return to campus to speak to students this spring, he joined the Marines, became an astronaut, and flew on four shuttle missions with NASA. What’s more impressive is that those accomplishments likely aren’t the most impressive things he’s ever done.

After retiring from the Marines as a colonel, Hilmers went to medical school, became a doctor, joined the faculty at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, and has gone on dozens of global medical relief trips, all to fulfill his childhood dream of being
a physician.

Hilmers is board-certified in pediatrics and internal medicine—two areas he chose because they are most applicable to medical mission work. He is employed at the Texas Medical Center as a doctor and Baylor College of Medicine as an associate professor. He teaches new doctors and cares for patients. And he saves up his vacation time so he can go on medical relief missions.

A patch from one of Hillmer's missions on the Space Shuttle.
A patch from one of Hillmer’s missions on the Space Shuttle.

Those missions have taken him all over the world, from Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami to Haiti after the 2009 earthquake. And it’s more than just disaster relief: He’s looking forward to trips to Bulgaria, Kenya, and Bangladesh.

“If I have a free week, I want to go do something,” he said.

Hilmers wants to serve the entire world—that’s the reason he went to medical school in the first place. He’s always had the drive to serve. Part of it comes from nature, part of it from his liberal arts education at Cornell, and part of it from the perspective he got while in space, seeing the Earth from hundreds of miles above.

David Hilmers talks about following his dreams, and how he went from astronaut to physician.

“Global health is a major issue, and we’re all in it together,” he said. “We’re part of the global community. All physicians need to be involved.”

Hilmers might have extraordinary focus, drive, and ability (how many engineers turned Marine aviators turned astronauts turned physicians/teachers/global health advocates do you know?), but he thinks what he’s done is just an example of what anyone can and should be doing: Following dreams. He grew up wanting to be a doctor, and through all his peregrinations, he held on to that idea and eventually achieved it. It took discipline, something he knew well both from his athletics experience at Cornell and his military training, and it took tenacity.

“I follow the goals I think are important, and I stay with them,” he said. “I’m kind of like a bulldog when I get attached.”

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