J. Donald Woodruff

J. Donald Woodruff


If we were to turn to Who's Who in American Medicine or Men of Science to learn about J. Donald Woodruff, we would find that he was born in Sparrows Point, Maryland, educated at Dickinson College where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and captained the basketball team, received a medical degree from Johns Hopkins University and was elected to the Alpha Omega Alpha honorary medical society, served a residency in gynecology at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, served his country as a medical officer during World War II in the European Theater of Operations, and returned to Johns Hopkins to practice medicine and teach as a faculty member. During his career he became gynecologist-in-chief at two hospitals, presided over many prestigious professional societies, including the American Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (1977) in which he also served as secretary (1973-1975). He authored several textbooks as well as almost 300 scientific papers -- a most exemplary career, replete with accomplishments that few individuals could hope to equal. Dr. Woodruff rose to professor in the Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics at Johns Hopkins in 1968 and directed the Gynecologic Pathology Program there for a quarter of a century, with a joint appointment in the Department of Pathology.

Yet this remarkable series of achievements fails to capture the real J. Donald Woodruff -- the person you and I knew and loved. As the distinguished American author Willa Cather put it so well: "Nothing really matters but living -- accomplishments are the ornaments of life, they come second."

The real J. Donald Woodruff -- the one I remember -— still lives in my heart and the hearts of his colleagues and will always remain vibrant in our memories as charismatic, imposing, and intensely human. My own first exposure to Dr. Woodruff began through studying his textbook on pathology and hearing him lecture while a medical student at Cornell, house officer under his colleague Louis Hellman, and fledgling faculty member at The University of Pennsylvania. Little did I ever imagine that some day I would have a chance to work in the same department as he! My first direct exposure to Don Woodruff -- the one that really counts -- began when I was invited to serve as chairman of the department with which he had been associated for nearly 50 years. Both Don and Bettye, as well as his entire family, welcomed Joanne and me into their home, and we instantly became extended family members. Don's strength stood out in his physical power and his superb intellectual gifts but disproportionately more in the depth of his character. His strength of character was Don's real personna, overshadowing even an enviable academic brilliance. Don was easy for me to get to know. He was candid, realistic, and ever positive. We learned about one another through happy times in his home and ours, through sharing rides together, over our regular lunches in my office, which provided me with deeply needed guidance, through the happiness of weddings, and the grief of funerals. He never veered from asking me how he could help me, and help me he did. No one knew more about Hopkins, its treasures, and its flaws than Don Woodruff. He knew more people well than anyone else, and they knew him. Imagine the vulnerability of a newcomer to Hopkins, attempting to chair a prestigious department laden with tradition, learning at the feet of one of its most cherished traditions. He was proud of his physical strength -- tall, broad-shouldered -- poking me in the shoulder with his index finger to make a point, greeting me with a knuckle-crushing handshake, and patting my face with his palm to chide me for one of my thoughts. He accumulated a number of epithets, all full of affection and respect "The Professor," "J. Donald," "Uncle Don," "Casey," "Dr. Don." This man meant so much to me that each of these appelations conveyed its own special facet of Don's personality. His gruff exterior could intimidate many, but beneath this seemingly cantankerous veneer resided radiant warmth and caring for those who surrounded him. Don did not command respect from others because of what he represented, he won their respect for who he was.

He was not above inviting students and house officers to his home, chauffering them about town, providing funds when needed, and giving of himself to his community. Throughout, Don always reminded me that his entrance into medical school at Hopkins in September 1933 preceded my entrance into this world by one month. That I was born 2 months premature made the coincidence even more striking.

Don was a superlative grammarian, a stickler for words. Each Saturday morning I would sit next to "the Professor" at Grand Rounds. He took pride in managing the light switch to darken the room for slides. He would poke me in the ribs if he disagreed with the lecturer and grumble to me if the speaker mispronounced a word or was grammatically incorrect, constantly consulting his wristwatch when the speaker began to exceed his alotted time.

One of the most time-consuming and critical responsibilities of a chairman is to recruit and replenish faculty members. A most devoted advisor in this important task was Dr. Woodruff. He knew everyone and could spot talent and identify flaws. He always said that an individual who is content in his present position is the best recruit; beware of the person who is restless and anxious to move. He had an uncanny and sensitive awareness, conscious or unconscious, of hopes, fears, abilities, and frailties of his colleagues. He made people feel important and made them realize that he was deeply interested in their lives and families. He always listened. Each of our residents has had the unparalleled opportunity to spend hours with Dr. Woodruff examining pathology specimens or assisting at surgery, an enviable experience that was always accompanied by choice, uninhibited repartee. When physicians from abroad would visit our Department, a consistent request was to meet Dr. Woodruff, whose books they had read or whom they had heard as a visiting lecturer. With a gleam in his eye and his firm handshake, Don's comment was always (regardless of age, and some were senior to him), "Well how are you, young man?" Other Woodruffisms were the usual response when I would call him on the phone, "Oh, Ed Wallach, I used to know him," when asked how was he feeling, "Poorly, thank you," or after "glad you could be here today," "The alternative is totally unacceptable." These quips are in addition to Don's widespread reputation for remarkable, expressive, and often uninvited renditions of "Casey at the Bat," "The Shooting of Dan McGrew," or the entire Ogden Nash repertoire.

As Dr. Woodruff moved on in years, the honors escalated. The J. Donald Woodruff Alumni Lecture Hall was completed and dedicated in 1985, but it only took 100 contributors 6 weeks to provide the support for this endeavor, each purchasing one of the seats to make it possible. Two years later The J. Donald Woodruff Annual Teaching Award was initiated through the impetus of our appreciative resident staff. In 1989 a testimonial dinner was given in Don's honor at the time of The Johns Hopkins Centennial. Three years ago the J. Donald Woodruff Chair in Gynecology was established after a record-breaking brief drive. One of the most cherished events in my professional career was to have been named as the first J. Donald Woodruff professor; to have his name linked with mine is indeed an awesome honor.

These comments may seem like "remembrances of things past." Dr. Woodruff has followed in the footsteps of Thomas Cullen, Emil Novak, and Richard TeLinde. He was determined to make each of them proud of him. In our eyes, Dr. Woodruff raised the discipline of gynecologic pathology to new heights and exceeded the expectations of his forebears. With J. Donald Woodruff, to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare, "the past is prologue" -- prologue for the germination of all of the seeds Dr. Woodruff so tenderly planted within those of us blessed to have been cultivated by this great man's tutelage; prologue for those of us for whom he served as a charismatic prototype and role model; prologue for the thousands of lives he touched and aided through his remarkable gifts as a clinician and a pathologist. There are those who have remarked that Don's passing represents the end of an era. Don Woodruff would vehemently contest that thought. Such vitality and spirit does not disappear. It kindles the flame in each of those whom he has touched and inspires us to pursue our own paths to self-expression and inspiration for others in the era begun by J. Donald Woodruff.

Submitted by Edward E. Wallach

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