Faculty Spotlight: Michael J. Caplan, MD

By Lynn McCain | January 22 2021

Michael Caplan, MD is no stranger to the University of Michigan Department of Pathology. This is actually his fourth time joining the Department! After completing a B.S. in Criminalistics at Michigan State University and an MD from the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, Caplan joined the Department for the first time as an AP/CP Resident from 1987-1992. He then left to pursue a Forensic Pathology Fellowship at the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner before rejoining Pathology as a Clinical Assistant Professor in 1993.

In 1998, he left the Department to become the Assistant Medical Examiner for the State of Delaware. He returned to training as a Pediatric Pathology Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in 2003, and following this fellowship, he was recruited to the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston as an Assistant Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. Caplan rejoined us in 2009 for the third time as a Visiting Clinical Lecturer while also serving as the Medical Director of Laboratories at Mercy Hospital in Cadillac. In 2011, he was re-recruited to the Medical University of South Carolina as an Associate Professor, and in 2014, he returned to New York City as the Chief Medical Examiner.

Caplan joined MM-Pathology for the fourth time as a Clinical Associate Professor serving as a Forensic Pathologist for Michigan Medicine and Washtenaw/Livingston Counties in July 2020. “Since I left U of M in 1998 and again in 2010, I have always dreamed of coming back here,” said Caplan. “This is where I did my pathology training and where I held my first job out of postgraduate training. My favorite activity has always been teaching – whether residents, fellows, clinical colleagues, or staff in anatomic and clinical pathology.”

Caplan has been interested in forensic science and death investigation since he was a teenager. “My favorite book was The Boston Strangler by Gerold Frank. Originally, I was more intrigued with the behavioral aspects/psychopathology of crime, but eventually I became more fascinated by the notion of the human body as a source of evidence,” recalls Caplan. The two main things that drew him to Pathology as a career were his “love of anatomy, both normal and abnormal; and the fun that goes with the challenge of eliciting clues from patients who cannot provide information in the conventional way.”

 “There is not a single day since I have entered this field that I have not learned something, even if it is not earth-shattering!” he explained. “Pathology fits with my approach to life because it allows me the luxury to “chew” on ideas; with the exception of frozen section diagnoses, I feel that I have time to be more deliberate in considering different diagnostic possibilities. Finally, for me, there is nothing more rewarding than being able to share an interesting finding with another person working in the autopsy room, surgical pathology grossing room, or at the multi-headed microscope.”

The pandemic has changed many aspects of our lives. For Caplan, “the sense of isolation is the most recurring theme – trying to meet people when you are new is a challenge when you are unmasked, let alone the current situation. However, I am extremely appreciative of the efforts of Dr. Allecia Wilson, my supervisor, and Dr. Liron Pantanowitz, [Director of Anatomic Pathology] who took the time out of his day to bring me around the entire department and introduce me to staff and faculty.”

If a young person was interested in a career in pathology, Caplan advised that he “would encourage that person to learn all that they can about clinical medicine before they decide to specialize in pathology, because ultimately, it’s about the correlation between the clinical picture and the pathologic findings that allows you the best chance of putting the case together. I would also encourage that person to spend time not just during the day, but in the evening and on a weekend, to really get a feel for what is required to be the best that you can be in your field. You are always reading, studying, and analyzing – that doesn’t stop at 5:00.”  

When asked about his most influential mentor, Caplan stated, “This is the toughest question because I probably can’t reduce it to one person – but I will say that the faculty who trained me at U of M in the late 1980s and early 1990s (1987-1992) were all influential mentors for me, and for 2 main reasons: they promoted a vigorous work ethic but they had a blast the whole time they were doing it! One other person who I have to mention is my pediatric pathology fellowship director at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Dr. Ron Jaffe (2003-2004). Dr. Jaffe was a mentor who never spoke too loudly or said too much – but his teaching was invaluable because he taught me how to seek the answer for myself and to never be satisfied with superficial explanations.”

Caplan is thrilled to be back in Ann Arbor, because, after all, “You can’t get Bob Evans pancakes in Long Island – isn’t that enough?! Seriously, I have always loved being in Ann Arbor because the energy of a university town is something you just can’t get in other places. I am really looking forward to when I can go back to a coffee shop and study with the other students there!” In his leisure time Caplan loves jazz, rhythm and blues, soul, and old school music. “I used to play keyboard but I’m pretty rusty now! My other favorite thing is watching old movies – I can never get enough film noir or the Bowery Boys!”

Please join us in welcoming Dr. Michael Caplan back to Pathology and take a moment to get to know him. You will be glad you did!