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.
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
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
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.
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."
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.