McGovern, John Philip [Jack] (1921–2007)

By: Bryant Boutwell

Type: Biography

Published: July 16, 2019

Updated: July 31, 2020

John Philip “Jack” McGovern, physician, scientist, medical educator, and philanthropist, was born on June 2, 1921, at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., to surgeon Francis Xavier McGovern and Lottie (Brown) McGovern. An only child growing up in the nation’s capital during the Great Depression, he learned organizational skills from his mother, the love of medicine from his father, and a great spirit of generosity from his maternal grandmother, Mary Fahrnkoff Brown, who opened her farmhouse kitchen in the nation’s capital during the Great Depression to feed families in need. McGovern’s second cousin, Helen Hayes, made her mark on the stage and in film and started a foundation supporting the arts that impressed and inspired the young McGovern to one day build his own foundation and establish his own philanthropic legacy. Known as Jack to family and close friends, he stated late in life that he learned from his grandmother that giving and receiving were the same thing filling “a God-sized hole in one’s heart.”

Graduating in 1939 from Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C., McGovern followed his dream of a career in medicine and attended Duke University where he completed undergraduate studies in 1942 and his medical degree in 1945. His application to medical school brought him to the office of founding Duke medical school dean, Wilburt Cornell Davison, M.D., who became a lifetime friend and mentor following the loss of McGovern’s father to tuberculosis. Davison had trained at Oxford University with Sir William Osler, who was renowned as a great humanist and physician who taught his students the calling of medicine that exercises one’s heart and mind equally—qualities that Davison, in turn, imparted to McGovern. For his student research work with whooping cough, McGovern was named a prestigious Markle Scholar during his senior year in medical school and developed a love for medical research that he maintained throughout his professional career.

McGovern graduated from medical school with a focus on pediatrics and the emerging field of immunology, and he received special recognition as the school’s first recipient of the Borden Undergraduate Research Award in Medicine. He also graduated with a commission as a United States Army first lieutenant in the Corps Reserve. McGovern followed the Davison/Oslerian principles of patient-centered, humanistic medicine throughout his professional life and eventually cofounded the American Osler Society in 1970. He completed his residency in pediatrics at Yale and Duke and in 1946 was assigned to McGuire General Hospital in Richmond, Virginia, as assistant director of the Physical Medicine Service as a young captain in the Army Medical Corps in charge of the paraplegic service. There he organized a wheelchair basketball team. The activity proved to be a trendsetter for organized sports throughout the Veterans Administration hospitals and has continued to be used as a recreational and rehabilitative activity to this day.

Following his postgraduate training and a brief study abroad in 1949 at Guy’s Hospital in London and at Hôpital des Enfants-Malades in Paris, McGovern joined the faculty of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he was lauded by the students for his teaching abilities. He went to Tulane University (1954–56) and started an allergy clinic for children at Charity Hospital.

At the urging of one of his Duke professors, Grant Taylor, M.D., McGovern left Tulane in 1956 and moved to Houston where he secured faculty appointments at both Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Texas Postgraduate School of Medicine in the emerging Texas Medical Center. In this capacity he developed innovative residency training programs in immunology. At the same time, McGovern started his own allergy clinic—McGovern Allergy and Asthma Clinic—and grew it into one of the nation’s largest privately-owned allergy clinics. An active member of the American College of Allergists and the American Academy of Allergies, he served as president of the American College of Allergists (1968–69) while editing their journals and leading the allergy profession during the difficult years of the 1960s when the profession struggled to achieve status as a medical specialty. In the tradition of Sir William Osler, he also worked to support medical libraries and in 1970 was appointed by President Richard Nixon to the board of the National Library of Medicine, where he later served as chairman.

John P. McGovern married Houstonian Kathrine Galbreath on December 20, 1961. Earlier that same year he started his own foundation, originally called the Texas Allergy Research Foundation, with $10,000 of his savings. Through investments in the stock market, real estate, and his own successful medical practice, he grew his foundation, which was renamed the John P. McGovern Foundation in 1979, from that initial investment into a fund approaching $180 million at the time of his death.

During his lifetime, John P. McGovern held seventeen professorships, received twenty-nine honorary doctorates, authored 252 professional publications including twenty-six books in the medical sciences and humanities, and served as president or chief elected officer of fifteen professional societies in medicine. He was on the editorial boards of numerous journals. His many prestigious honors include the American Medical Association’s Special Award for Meritorious Service and the William A. Howe Award---the highest honor from the American School Health Association. In 1985 President Ronald Reagan awarded McGovern the Private Sector Initiative Commendation for his lifetime of service in medicine and philanthropy. McGovern was appointed to the National Advisory Council of the Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, National Institutes of Health, in 1987 and served for four years. He received the Harold Swanberg Distinguished Service Award—the highest honor of the American Medical Writer’s Association—in 1988, and in 1989 he was honored with the Surgeon General’s Medal for his lifetime of service. In 1993 the Houston Academy of Medicine initiated its John P McGovern Compleat Physician Award, and he was named Houston’s Distinguished Citizen of the Year in 2001. The McGovern name can be found on medical scholarships, professorships, and medical buildings throughout the country as well as Houston landmarks such as the McGovern Lake and Children’s Zoo in Hermann Park, the McGovern Museum of Health & Medical Science, the McGovern Medical School (formally the University of Texas Medical School at Houston), and the Katherine G. McGovern College of the Arts at the University of Houston.

An avid collector of rare medical books, in 1982 he donated his extensive collection to the Texas Medical Center Library, which subsequently renamed its special collections to the John P. McGovern Historical Collections and Research Center in 1996. In addition to collecting rare medical books, McGovern enjoyed hobbies such as tennis and other sports, fishing, and music. John Philip McGovern died at John Sealy Hospital in Galveston on May 31, 2007. He worked throughout his professional life to bring together big institutions, the health professions, interdisciplinary ideas, and a team approach to healthcare. Following his death, his wife Kathrine succeeded him as president of the McGovern Foundation and continued to maintain and build the legacy of community service he created.

Gilbert D. Barkin et al., eds., Appreciations, Reminiscences and Tributes Honoring John P. McGovern (Houston: Health Sciences Institute, 1980). Bryant Boutwell, John P. McGovern, MD: A Lifetime of Stories (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2014). Houston Chronicle, August 25, 1996; June 2, 2007. John P. McGovern Papers, John P. McGovern Historical Collections and Research Center, Texas Medical Center Library, Houston.

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Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Houston
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • East Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Bryant Boutwell, “McGovern, John Philip [Jack],” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 17, 2022,

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July 16, 2019
July 31, 2020

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