Hopkins' Dr. Harvey dies: giant of medical teaching 8 students became medical school deans

May 09, 1998|By Diana K. Sugg and Fred Rasmussen | Diana K. Sugg and Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

One of the giants in modern medicine, Dr. A. McGehee Harvey, a shy, thoughtful man who trained dozens of the country's top doctors and never forgot to listen to patients, died yesterday at Johns Hopkins Hospital, the place he loved and labored in for more than 50 years.

Dr. Harvey, 86, suffered a stroke, but before he passed away about 1 p.m. yesterday, a procession of physicians and nurses stopped by to see the former chief of medicine. Many considered him to be a generation ahead of his time, a brilliant internist and crack diagnostician who took into account the whole patient, not just the parts.

"He was truly one of the great physicians of the 20th century," said one of his students, Dr. Eugene Braunwald, the Hersey Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, a position that is the equivalent of physician-in-chief. "It would have been very easy for him to let Hopkins rest on its laurels, but he wasn't satisfied with it. He moved it into a totally new generation."

But in addition to overseeing the birth of 15 new divisions at Hopkins' medical school during the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, Dr. Harvey also saw to the details. He noticed the pale fingernails on a patient that other doctors had overlooked; he invited the residents intimidated by his reputation for casual dinners at his house on St. Paul Street.

"He had this wonderful habit of being very quiet and letting other people speak," said Dr. Gert H. Brieger, the William H. Welch professor of the history of medicine at Hopkins.

"Dr. Harvey was one of the sagest men on the faculty," said Dr. Thomas B. Turner, a longtime friend and dean emeritus at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. "He was a man who saw the future clearer than most."

Appropriately, the building named after Dr. Harvey sits at the heart of the Hopkins campus. And so does his legacy.

At age 34, when Dr. Harvey was appointed to the prestigious post of chairman of the Hopkins' department of medicine, he had already established a distinguished career as a researcher in neuromuscular diseases, such as myasthenia gravis. He was the youngest person ever named to the post, and Time magazine featured a story on him. Many physicians were skeptical that he could be a good administrator and clinician.

But it didn't take long for Dr. Harvey, known to friends and colleagues as "Mac," to establish himself in his new role.

On morning rounds, while visiting each patient, residents would report to him the details of the cases.

"He wouldn't just listen to what we said; he'd ask the patients some more questions," said Dr. Richard J. Johns, the Distinguished Service professor of biomedical engineering and a longtime student of Dr. Harvey. "He would figure out what was the matter with folks who we were stumped by."

Puzzling liver disease

In one case, Dr. Johns recalls a patient with a liver disease that puzzled the physicians. Harvey asked the patient where he worked. The answer was a candy factory on Monument Street. It turned out the man had contracted a type of jaundice carried by rats in the factory.

Dr. Victor A. McKusick, the world-renowned geneticist who trained under Dr. Harvey and succeeded him as chairman of the Department of Medicine, said Dr. Harvey drilled his students in taking careful histories and physical exams while exhaustively analyzing data.

"He was not a martinet. He expected high performance and you didn't want to let him down," said Dr. McKusick. "He was a superb teacher."

Dr. Harvey's application of scientific methods and clinical problem-solving got him called upon for difficult cases around the world. In 1969, Dr. Harvey and his wife, Dr. Elizabeth Treide Harvey, flew to the Soviet Union to care for the daughter of deposed Soviet Union leader Nikita S. Khrushchev. She had lupus. He also treated two presidents of Peru and Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru.

In many ways, Dr. Harvey patterned himself after Sir William Osler, the legendary first physician-in-chief at Hopkins, who believed that the patient was the source of medical knowledge. Dr. Osler taught his students to never speak to a new patient without pencil and notebook. As much a humanist as a scientist, he blended the two philosophies in his famous textbook, "The Principles and Practice of Medicine."

During his 27-year term as chief of medicine, Dr. Harvey resurrected this classic, writing it in the same room as Dr. Osler had -- under the hospital's historic dome.

At the time, he wrote that his purpose was "to produce a book which is built around the patient rather than the disease." The text is still being published today.

"He was a very worthy successor to Dr. Osler," Dr. McKusick said.

Dr. Harvey took a personal interest in every student he trained. They say he encouraged them, even when their interests took them out of his realm.

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