John Mann Beal, MD, FACS, remembered as caring surgeon, educator, and advocate for the surgical profession

Dr. Beal

Dr. Beal

American College of Surgeons (ACS) Past-President John Mann Beal, MD, FACS, died June 3 in Valdosta, GA, at age 97. Dr. Beal retired in 1982 as the J. Roscoe Miller Distinguished Professor and Chairman, department of surgery, Northwestern University Medical School (now the Feinberg School of Medicine); and chairman, department of surgery, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Chicago, IL. He was appointed professor emeritus in 1984.


Born in Starkville, MS, he moved to Chicago at age 13, when his father was appointed professor of botany at the University of Chicago (U of C). He attended the U of C high school and completed his undergraduate and medical studies at the U of C, receiving his medical degree in 1941. It was there that he met his future wife, Mary Phemister, daughter of the chairman of the U of C department of surgery, Dallas Phemister, MD, FACS.

He was a surgical intern and resident at the New York Hospital-Cornell University Medical Center, NY, in the accelerated training program during World War II, entering the U.S. Army in 1943. He and Mary were married before he left for Europe to serve as a surgeon in several evacuation hospitals. He was discharged as a Major in 1946 and returned to the New York Hospital to continue his residency, finishing as chief resident in 1948 under the newly appointed chairman Frank Glenn, MD, FACS, an ACS Past-President.

Career as an academic surgeon

Soon thereafter, ACS Past-President William P. Longmire, Jr., MD, FACS, chairman of surgery at the new medical school of the University of California-Los Angeles, recruited Dr. Beal to his faculty and later appointed him chief of the surgical service at Wadsworth General Hospital Veterans Administration Center. He conducted basic research on essential nutrients for intravenous feeding and, with Dr. Longmire, studied the use of jejunal segments as a gastric substitute after total gastrectomy.

Dr. Glenn, an authority on gallbladder and biliary tract surgery, recruited him back to New York Hospital-Cornell University Medical Center in 1953, where he continued his research and developed a large practice, concentrating on gastrointestinal problems. His national reputation burgeoned, and in 1963, he was recruited to succeed the formidable Loyal Davis, MD, FACS, ACS Past-President, as professor and chairman of the department of surgery at Northwestern.

As chair, Dr. Beal helped lead the consolidation of Passavant Memorial Hospital and Chicago Wesley Memorial Hospital into Northwestern Memorial Hospital and the consolidation of the separate surgical residency programs at Northwestern’s affiliated hospitals into a single program, two events that set the stage for academic and clinical growth. Another major contribution was his leadership in establishing Northwestern’s practice plan, which facilitated the growth of the full-time faculty and the recruitment of highly qualified chairmen and supported the medical school and its clinical departments financially.

Dr. Beal focused on teaching students and residents. As a surgeon he was meticulous, gentle, and unflappable. He calmly led residents through difficult gastrointestinal cases while explaining the procedures to medical students. He and other surgical leaders established the Association of Program Directors in Surgery, an organization devoted to improving surgical residencies and the experiences of surgical residents. He served as a director and chairman of the American Board of Surgery, and was a member of the Residency Review Committee for Surgery from 1972 to 1978. From 1976 to 1978 he was chairman of the Surgery B Study Section of the National Institutes of Health. He authored or co-authored 190 scientific publications.

Leadership in the profession

Dr. Beal was a member of many important surgical societies, including the American Surgical Association, the exclusive Society of Clinical Surgery, the Southern and Western Surgical Associations, and the Société Internationale de Chirurgie. Inevitably, his common sense and practical wisdom led to leadership positions in surgical organizations, including the presidencies of the Chicago Surgical Society and the Central Surgical Association, and the vice-presidencies of the Society for Surgery of the Alimentary Tract and the Council of Medical Specialty Societies. After six years as a Regent and a term as Chair of the Board of Regents (1980–1982), he was elected President of the American College of Surgeons in 1982, following in the footsteps of his exemplars, Drs. Glenn, Longmire, Phemister, and Davis.


A tall, handsome man, Dr. Beal had an elegant bearing. His soft, southern voice, gentle humor, and wide-ranging interests made him an interesting conversationalist. He played a good game of tennis and was an avid sports fan. While he was at Northwestern, season tickets to the Chicago Bears’ games were unavailable to the public, so he asked the Bears’ owner to help him obtain them. Dr. Beal recalled with a chuckle his delight on receiving season tickets in the mail and his chagrin when he attended his first game and found that they were standing-room-only.

He was a master at resolving disputes and bringing dissenting factions together, both as Northwestern’s chair of surgery and as a leader in surgical organizations. His passion for concord and harmony was reflected in his American College of Surgeons Presidential Address titled “Unity of Purpose,” which was published in the December 1982 Bulletin of the American College of Surgeons. He addressed the problems caused by fragmentation in surgery and advocated for conjoined certifying boards, improved communication among subspecialties, and efforts to agree on common purposes and agendas, mediated by the College.

He was principled and uncompromising in his beliefs. While serving as the College’s representative in the American Medical Association (AMA) House of Delegates in the early 1980s, he became convinced that the AMA Board of Trustees was ignoring the Delegates’ and the College’s recommendations, especially with regard to socioeconomic issues. He recommended that the College vacate its seat in the House of Delegates, which was tantamount to pulling out of the AMA—a stunning action implemented by the College’s then-Director, C. Rollins Hanlon, MD, FACS. As a result, the College increased its presence in Washington, DC, and developed its own positions on socioeconomic issues, rather than adopting those of the AMA. This strengthened the ability of the College to influence government agencies and Congress. Having established its presence in Washington, the College resumed its participation in the House of Delegates in 1992.

Dr. Beal is survived by his son and daughter-in-law, Bruce and Leslie Beal of Valdosta, GA; daughter and son-in-law, Margaret and Jeffrey Loeb of St. Louis, MO; his son John Beal III of Chicago, IL; and four grandchildren. His wife, Mary, died in 2005. One of the last of the notable surgeons of his generation, Dr. Beal taught us to value dignity, kindness, and humility, attributes of a splendid surgeon and human being.

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