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About John P. McGovern

McGovern examining a boy

In 1942, an apprehensive Duke undergraduate student named John P. "Jack" McGovern sat in the office of Wilburt C. Davison, the founding dean of Duke University's medical school. During that pre-MCAT era, personal interviews often made the difference between admission and rejection. Dean Davison ushered the young man in cordially, but no sooner had they sat down than the phone rang. An extensive conversation ensued. When it was over, the phone rang again.

John P. McGovern
John P. McGovern

Growing more anxious by the minute, the future Dr. McGovern got up and examined the photos on the office wall. One in particular drew his attention – a photo of a man with a walrus moustache and dark, piercing eyes. When Dean Davison hung up at last, McGovern asked who was in the photograph. "Sir William Osler," replied the dean, who had studied under him as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford.

The dean then embarked at great length on a description of Osler's myriad contributions to medical education and patient care. McGovern learned that during a career spanning the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Canadian-born physician had initiated the residency system and had introduced the practice of bringing students onto the wards, where they could observe the interaction between professors and their patients. He had also discovered four diseases, which now carry his name, and had been a professor and practitioner at McGill, the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins. In 1905 he became Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford. Throughout his career as a physician and teacher, Sir William Osler had exemplified care, compassion and respect, for both his patients and his students.

As the time for the interview drew to a close, Dean Davison, who had yet to direct a question at Jack McGovern, told the prospective student not to worry, that he had been accepted. But the dean did ask him to do one thing: get a copy of the book Aequanimitas, containing Osler's collected essays, and read it.

Dr. McGovern did just that. From then on he took Sir William Osler as his model of professional values and took to heart Dr. Osler's extensive teachings, many of which aim to impart to medical students and medical practitioners a philosophy of medical practice and a "Way of Life," as he titled one of his essays, that benefits patients first, but also physicians and the medical profession as a whole. His subsequent career in medicine demonstrates to today's medical students the timeless relevance of Dr. Osler's wisdom.

After receiving his bachelor of science from Duke University, he graduated from Duke's medical school in 1945, then interned in pediatrics at Yale-New Haven General Hospital, spent two years in the army, and went on to do post-graduate work in London and Paris. He served as a resident at Duke University Hospital in Durham and next as chief resident at the Children's Hospital in Washington, D.C. He was awarded a five-year Markle Scholarship, and taught as a professor at George Washington University School of Medicine, then for two years at Tulane.

In 1956, Dr. McGovern established the McGovern Allergy Clinic in Houston; within 15 years it had become the nation's largest in that specialty. In 1957, he founded the fellowship program in allergy and immunology at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital, the first in Texas and the second in all medical schools south of the Mason-Dixon Line. In 1961, he established the Texas Allergy Research Foundation, as well as a private philanthropy, the John P. McGovern Foundation.

In 1969, concerned that the emphasis on science in medical education was crowding out the art of patient care, Dr. McGovern was the principal founder of the American Osler Society, which helps keep the example of Osler alive for all health professionals.

McGovern reading Osler
McGovern reading Osler

Dr. McGovern's long-standing commitment to education, in the form of teaching, research, and scholarship, led to his appointment to 17 professorships at 15 universities, including professorships at each of the seven degree-granting institutions of the Texas Medical Center. In 1976, he was awarded the Distinguished Alumnus Award from Duke University. The American School Health Association awarded him the Distinguished Alumnus Award, as well as their highest honor, the William A. Howe Award. He was a Presidential appointee to the Board of Regents of the National Library of Medicine, which he chaired in 1973-74. In 1988, France's President Mitterand conferred on him L'Order National du Merite, and the King of Sweden presented him with the Royal Medallion of the Polar Star. In 1990, the American Association of Colleges of Nurses awarded him the annual Outstanding Scholarship in Health Care Award; and in 1991, he received the Outstanding Alumnus Award from the Phi Beta Kappa Alumni of Greater Houston. In all, he was awarded honorary degrees from 28 major colleges and universities. In addition, he was the author or co-author of over 240 publications, including 21 books, and served as editor, associate editor, or member of the editorial board of more than 20 scientific journals. His leadership was exemplified by his being named chief elected officer of some 15 prominent societies in the humanities, health education, science and medicine.

Over the years, Dr. McGovern gave generously to schools and programs throughout the University of Texas Medical Branch. He collaborated with Chauncey Leake, Ph.D., Truman Blocker, M.D., and Chester Burns, M.D., Ph.D., on numerous projects relating to humanism in medicine and held an appointment as Adjunct Professor of the History and Philosophy of Medicine at the Institute for the Medical Humanities, which he helped inspire. In addition to donating lectureships and supporting conferences that enhance teaching and enrich intellectual life at UTMB, he endowed the McGovern Professorship in Nursing for Humane Care and the McGovern Centennial Professorship in the Department of Family Medicine for Substance Abuse. He also commissioned the John P. McGovern Hall of Medical History – statues of 12 pioneers in biomedical science, spanning 35 centuries, from Imhotep to Marie Curie, plus a bust of Sir William Osler, all by noted sculptor Doris Appel. These grace the foyer of the historic Ashbel Smith Building, affectionately known as "Old Red."

WM Osler by McGovern
WM Osler by McGovern

Above and beyond this financial support, he advised and encouraged the university to practice and teach the art of the practice of medicine, as well as the science. In recognition and appreciation of these contributions and to affirm publicly UTMB's commitment to the principles of humane medical practice and teaching of which Sir William Osler was one of history's most eloquent proponents, the Office of the President has established the annual John P. McGovern Lifetime Achievement Award in Oslerian Medicine.

A lifelong Oslerian, Dr. McGovern had given generously to the schools and programs at the University of Texas Medical Branch and other health sciences universities. He collaborated on numerous projects relating to humanism in medicine, in addition to donating lectureships and supporting conferences that enhance teaching and enrich intellectual life at UTMB.

In 2001, Dr. McGovern made the gift establishing the John P. McGovern Academy of Oslerian Medicine. Since his death in 2007, the John P. McGovern Foundation has continued his legacy of generous support.

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