RJ White Lectureship
We had a successful 52nd annual RJ White Lecture on Thursday, May 19, 2016
Moncrief Cancer Institute
Dr. Douglas J. Mathisen
Chairman, Department Thoracic Surgery
Harvard University/Massachusetts General Hospital
“If a surgeon is first a good doctor . . ., if he is diligent and persistent in his efforts to improve himself and the first to realize his limitations and errors . . , if he is eager to help the younger men about him . . ., if he is tolerant and understanding of his brother surgeon’s shortcomings . . ., if he has a fierce and instinctive personal and professional integrity and is humbly grateful to his Creator . . ., I think he may hope to come to the end of the road serene, proud and happy to have spent his life as a surgeon.” The Surgeon’s Religion, R. J. White, 1949
The beloved author of these lines came to the end of his road peacefully on October 17, 1976.
One of the most outstanding surgeons of his era in Texas, Dr. Joe White was a native Texan, born November 12, 1893. He grew up in the west Texas town of Brady where the talk was ranches, cowhands and cattle drives. To the end, his continued interest in Texas lore sparkled his conversations and writings.
After graduating from Yale in 1916 he attended the College of Physicians and Surgeons and remained in New York for his surgical training at St. Luke’s Hospital.
He began the practice of surgery in Fort Worth in 1924. His reputation as an unusually gifted surgeon spread rapidly and in a few years he enjoyed a busy practice and great popularity in the community.
Early in his career he was elected to two of the three surgical organizations to which he was most devoted and very active throughout his lifetime; the Texas Surgical Society, and the Southern Society of Clinical Surgeons. To our good fortune his love of the Southern Surgical Association prompted numerous contributions and discussions, not to mentions a perfect attendance record until the past two years. His scientific contributions were remarkably varied in content but not in excellence.
His pediatric surgical accomplishments were perhaps his most impressive for a surgeon working virtually alone in a community hospital. For example, his was the first successful repair of a congenital tracheoesophageal fistula in Texas (1947).
No physician in Fort Worth was more admired nor as personally popular among his colleagues than Dr. White, and in 1953 he was acclaimed the “doctor’s doctor” and awarded the Gold Headed Cane. It was on this occasion, when asked by a news reporter about the prognosis for a cure for cancer, his practical wisdom and characteristically succinct response were most evident: “Cancer is too much a part of life itself.”
He was perennial Chairman of the Surgery Department at St. Joseph Hospital. As long as he was active none other was ever nominated during the annual elections and upon retiring he was elected lifetime Emeritus-in-Chief.
He had few peers as a literary scholar and his practical discussions from the podium always closed with an appropriate quote from his great store, leaving us amused and wiser.
His keen interest in man and his own environment was manifest by his frequent references to characters from Shakespeare, the Old Testament, Mark Twain, Dickens, and innumerable others.
Using his endless store of anecdotes, tales, and quotes, the evening he regaled us as master of ceremonies at this Association’s banquet on the occasion of the then President Francis Massie’s tenure is unforgettable.
In a more serious vein, during his tenure as President of the Texas Surgical Society, the Council requested a presidential address. The result was his Surgeon’s Religion (quoted in the first paragraph above). Later published in booklet form this outstanding philosophical treatise remains timely reading for any surgeon in any phase of his career.
This in turn led to What Is Man That Thou Art Mindful Of Him, a scholarly but warm and personal search into man’s struggle with his environment, his God and his fate, presented as the honored guest of the Georgia Surgical Society in 1966.
While he was on a European trip after his retirement in 1963 his friends and colleagues organized the R. Joseph White Lecture Foundation as a tribute. The Foundation brings outstanding medical and surgical speakers to Fort Worth annually.
With a career studded with honors and accomplishments, Joe would say his greatest was his marriage to Marie whom he loved so dearly and whom he so proudly escorted to every meeting of the three surgical societies to which he was most devoted. Marie’s care and love for him was wonderful to behold and both bore his final infirmity with patience and equanimity.
All of us who knew Dr. White are grateful that we had this exemplary surgeon in our lives and thankful for his documented philosophical expressions to which we can refer from time to time rekindling his friendship and perhaps realigning our own personal goals.
If he were writing this, quite likely he would close with a quotation from Tennyson’s Ulysses that he loved:
“I am part of all that I have met.
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates and councils, government;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.”
WISHARD S. LORIMER, JR.