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John P. McGovern: A legacy of giving

Posted: March 14, 2014
John P. McGovern

John P. McGovern, MD

In spring 1956, a handsome and tanned John P. McGovern, MD, made a decision to leave his faculty position at Tulane University in New Orleans and move 348 miles west to Houston and the new Texas Medical Center. He was 35 years old. As a pediatric allergist and immunologist at Tulane’s Charity Hospital, McGovern excelled as a teacher, clinician and researcher on a fast trajectory at the national level as a member of numerous professional organizations that constantly sought his input and leadership. Some of his medical students in New Orleans even went as far as describing McGovern in the mid-1950s as reminiscent of a young John F. Kennedy who was also tanned, charismatic and rapidly on his way to the top of his field.

Duke University-trained McGovern was beloved by his students, respected by faculty, and impressive on all fronts from teaching to research to patient care. For him, the young Texas Medical Center could not be ignored. After all, one of his favorite Duke professors, Grant Taylor, had recently joined The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, the new cancer hospital named for Monroe Dunaway Anderson, as the first head of pediatrics and dean of The University of Texas Postgraduate School of Medicine operated by MD Anderson. By 1963 the now defunct Postgraduate School of Medicine that began at MD Anderson in the 1950s was retooled as The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences to train basic scientists in this unique clinical setting with UTHealth and MD Anderson faculty working together to provide a model of synergistic graduate education.

Grant Taylor, MD, circa 1957

Grant Taylor, MD, circa 1957

Houston’s rapidly growing new medical center in the 1940s and 1950s was creating a medical buzz throughout the country, drawing attention by the best and brightest in medicine. Like the pull of a magnet, the Texas Medical Center was a place where talented high-achievers like a young Tulane surgeon named Michael DeBakey along with McGovern could find unlimited opportunities and help shape a medical city unmatched by any other in the world. McGovern, an allergist and immunologist, knew the medical center, which some call the Disneyland of medicine, was a place where he could start his own allergy clinic while serving faculty roles for these institutions destined for greatness.

With academic appointments at Baylor and the Postgraduate School of Medicine facilitated by Taylor, McGovern established his first clinic on Montrose Boulevard. Back then Montrose was known as Doctor’s Row given the many physicians who converted homes into clinic offices. Only a mile or two south near Rice University and George Hermann’s hospital was the fledgling Texas Medical Center where McGovern could build trendsetting residency-training programs at Baylor for the emerging field of allergy and immunology. Over at Texas Children’s Hospital, he launched an allergy clinic in 1956 and donated supplies from his own private practice in Montrose to build the allergy clinic into the largest service in that hospital at the time. On The University of Texas side, he worked with Taylor as the old Postgraduate School of Medicine transformed into our Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

The Texas Medical Center as it looked at the time McGovern arrived in 1956

The Texas Medical Center as it looked at the time McGovern arrived
in 1956

Growing allergy clinics

By 1965 McGovern was out of space at his Montrose clinic and moved closer to the Medical Center on Travis Street where today’s Hilton Houston Plaza/Medical Center stands. The Travis Street clinic was the original clinic of Mavis Kelsey who also needed more space and moved his rapidly growing Kelsey-Seybold Clinic, which was originally known as Kelsey-Leary Clinic, to larger quarters further up Fannin Street near Hermann Hospital.

Continuing his momentum of expansion, in 1972, McGovern had his own clinic building built on land he had purchased at Brompton Road and Holcombe Boulevard where the impressive Kelsey-Seybold campus stands today. McGovern’s clinic became the largest privately owned allergy clinic in the world with patient care, research and teaching. He served as president or chief elected officer of 15 professional organizations. Among numerous engagements and achievements, he worked as an editor for numerous professional journals, chaired the National Library of Medicine board of regents, authored 26 books and 252 professional papers, and collected 29 honorary degrees.

McGovern training a resident in 1968

McGovern training a resident in 1968

His early work with our Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences ignited his love of all six of our UTHealth schools where he was to this day the only faculty member to have held a faculty appointment at each. After all, he had trained at Duke with the founding dean Wilburt Davison who himself had trained with the great Sir William Osler at Oxford, England. Davison instilled in McGovern the Oslerian approach that included patient-centered care and appreciation of medical history and the humanities. McGovern’s faculty appointments at our UTHealth schools was a great source of pride because he recognized the future of medicine calls for health professionals from all disciplines to integrate their skills and work together as a team. We are Houston’s health university and McGovern understood just how important our academic mission is for the future of the health professions.

From his Osler roots he also understood that health care is a calling, an art and a science that exercises the heart and mind equally. As Osler said, you are treating a person, not a disease. McGovern lived that holistic, patient-centered approach, and even founded the American Osler Society in 1970. As did Osler and Davison, he treasured his rare medical book collection built over a lifetime and today the McGovern Rare Book Collection in our Texas Medical Center Library is a resource we all share.

Congresswoman Barbara Jordan and McGovern, 1977

Congresswoman Barbara Jordan and McGovern, 1977

As his clinic prospered, McGovern started a foundation with $10,000 in 1961. His gift for investing was as great as his love of teaching and patient care. After work, with his new bride Kathy at the wheel, he would scout the neighborhoods around the old Shamrock Hotel looking for houses to buy, and in time connected his multiple lots into blocks of McGovern-owned property. His business talent for investing in real estate and building a portfolio of diversified investments was at a level even the best investors in Houston found uncanny. Later large firms on Wall Street were calling Houston to find out what McGovern was doing. All the while he had in mind that in retirement (which came on New Year’s Day of 1986) he would have a McGovern Foundation with ample funds to give back to his community on a scale befitting his city and his vision. Ample funds indeed as his foundation grew from a few thousand dollars to a few million and well beyond.

John P. McGovern was my friend and mentor. The last 15 years of his life I volunteered my time helping him with writing projects. I was a UTHealth Medical School associate dean by day and a student at McGovern University by night as we shared the stories of Houston, the Texas Medical Center and medicine in general while writing forewords to books and acceptance speeches for the many awards that came his way.  Our mutual love of fishing meant that more than a few fish tales slipped into our conversations as did stories of his childhood and his own life mentors. I was with him on the day he died at John Sealy Hospital in Galveston. It was May 31, 2007, just two days before his 86th birthday. The birthday card I had mailed him days earlier from a meeting in Austin was never to be opened by his hands.

He loved UTHealth and all six of our schools. He understood before most the importance of the humanities—the art and the science of health care delivery. How proud he would be that UTHealth’s McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics is celebrating its 10th year at UTHealth in the coming academic year and offering interdisciplinary coursework that integrates into the curricula of each of our six schools. He would be just as proud of the groundbreaking humanities program in Galveston he had funded decades earlier and of their Academy of Oslerian Medicine.

A lifetime of stories

John P. McGovern, MD: A Lifetime of Stories

John P. McGovern, MD: A Lifetime of Stories

To honor my departed friend, the past three years I’ve gone through more than 300 boxes of his archives in our Texas Medical Center Historical Research Center, a unique research facility that deserves its own ‘Bout Time focus in the future. As his biographer, I’ve written the stories and the backstories of his life, which comprises a book released by Texas A&M University Press in March 2014. From his childhood growing up during the Great Depression in Washington D.C. to his famous second cousin, actress Helen Hayes, to his Duke days and arrival in Houston, you’ll learn about the many influences on his life that molded the physician and the philanthropist he was. All author proceeds from book sales go to UTHealth to support an endowed student scholarship fund at the Medical School.

You’ll find much of interest in his life including the fact that Warren Buffett attended the same Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington as McGovern. Buffett graduated nine years after McGovern left for Duke undergraduate studies in 1939. In writing the book I went to McGovern’s neighborhood, sat in front of his house, walked the streets and even drank from the same high school water fountain as McGovern and Buffett did, figuring something magical in the water might rub off. I then bought a lottery ticket and waited – so far no luck.

John P. McGovern’s name adorns buildings, awards, scholarships and even the entire campus of our Texas Medical Center. The water wall in the very heart of this medical center where East Cullen Street meets Moursund Boulevard is a landmark known as the McGovern Commons. There is the McGovern Children’s Zoo, McGovern Lake at Hermann Park, the McGovern/Stella Link Library … the full list can be found in his biography. In Washington D.C., the Smithsonian has McGovern lectures and Osler’s Oxford home, 13 Norham Gardens, is now the Osler-McGovern Centre serving as a conference center and gathering place for scholarship.  

McGovern’s reach is far indeed but his heart is right here with our schools and our programs. Next time you see the name McGovern, know that he was one of us and took great pride in the students, faculty, staff and programs of UTHealth. His foundation, to this day, continues to give back to our entire community and that gift of giving is a legacy we can all be proud of.

‘Bout Time is about connecting our past to our present. Dr. Bryant Boutwell is the John P. McGovern Professor of Oslerian Medicine at the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics and a Distinguished Teaching Professor. He is the author of two books on the history of Houston and the Texas Medical Center and writes this column to share the stories of our past – stories that define who we are and how we got here.

Bryant Boutwell

‘Bout Time is about connecting our past to our present. Dr. Bryant Boutwell is the John P. McGovern Professor of Oslerian Medicine at the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics and a Distinguished Teaching Professor. He is the author of two books on the history of Houston and the Texas Medical Center and writes this column to share the stories of our past—stories that define who we are and how we got here.

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