John W. Eckstein, MD (1923–2011)
It was 9:00 am. Tuesday, September 6th. I was at my desk when I received a call from Tom Eckstein, saying that his dad had just passed away. Jack Eckstein, the father, the husband, our hero, our friend, had passed away.
John W. Eckstein, MD, was an Iowan who stayed home and became dean of his alma mater. He was acclaimed nationwide as the dean of deans, not just for his 21-year tenure as dean of the University of Iowa College of Medicine, but for the respect and admiration he commanded from his peers; for his integrity, the trust he engendered, the high values he championed, and his enormous accomplishments. The building that carries his name as The Eckstein Medical Research Building is a perfect tribute to a man who committed his whole life to the college. The building now harbors our very best scientists, our Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators, our members of the National Academies and of the Institute of Medicine. He established the Cardiovascular Research Center in 1974, and set it up as a model for interdisciplinary research that flourished. He established the first Department of Family Practice and worked with the legislature in designing the Statewide System of Family Practice. He cared greatly about the community and its health care system. A large majority of the thousands of students who graduated during his tenure as Dean chose primary care as their career focus and many decided to stay in Iowa to serve Iowans.
When he left the Deanship in 1991, he left a legacy of an unassuming and fair-handed leadership of a medical school that had the nation's best rural medicine program, and was on the nation's list of 15 best colleges.
It is said that our accomplishments in life are often shaped by our early years and how we grow up. Our character, our values, our discipline are honed during those years. Let me tell you in brief about Jack's early years and let you decide how those events may have shaped his life:
Jack was born on November 23, 1923, in Central City, Iowa. His father, Dr John William Eckstein, graduated from Northwestern Medical School and went to Jesup, Iowa, for temporary assistance to a practicing physician and ended up marrying the school teacher, Alice Margaret Ellsworth, and setting up a practice in Central City, Iowa. John was their only child, and attended grade school in Central City before attending the Western Military Academy in Alton, Illinois. He had a great time—he played football, was in the band, excelled in Latin and sharpshooting, received high grades in Math and Science, and got 100 in Citizenship and Excellence in military grades. He was just 16, in his senior year, when his mother died suddenly. Cadet Eckstein graduated with honors in 1940, and then attended Loras College in Dubuque for three years. Father Dorrance Foley, a Jesuit and President of Loras, became a special mentor to Jack. World War II had begun, and eventually Jack left college and enlisted. A few months later his father died—he was an orphan at 19.
In 1944 he took flight training and became a navigator-bombardier and made Lieutenant. In a letter written on March 9, 1945, he said, “I have 10 missions in, and 25 more to go.” He was challenging the odds with 25 bombing missions between March and August, 6 months. While in the service in Sheppard Field, Texas, and on the battlefield in Europe he read a lot and he wrote a lot: over 100 letters to his Grandmother Bobbie Ellsworth, sometimes 2 or 3 a week, and she saved all the letters. He also played poker frequently while in the service, a skill he honed in Italy. He was always winning. He sent all the money back home to Grandma Bobbie.
I often wondered whether his team spirit, his leadership, his discipline emerged when he was in the navigation seat of the B24, sometimes flying only with the guidance of a sextant across the ocean. He knew he had to return his team to safety. He did it then as navigator and he did it again here as dean. He learned to take charge and never to let down those who relied on him. He flew combat missions in the Balkans, Rhineland, Po Valley, and Ploesti Campaigns. Many bombers were downed—his stayed up. The Almighty kept him safe for Iowa. On one particular mission, the lead plane of the squadron had a malfunction. Jack's plane had to take over leading the squadron, with Jack as navigator with little or no prior instruction. Using his own instincts he flew successfully until a break in the clouds, which revealed the boot of Italy allowed him to navigate the squadron to land safely. He was praised ever since as the best navigator in the Air Corps.
He came back to his beloved Iowa, and never again left American soil to go overseas except for 1 week in Japan in 1978 to attend the World Congress of Cardiology when he was president of the American Heart Association. After the service he returned to Loras and graduated in 1946. He then went to Medical School at the University of Iowa on the G.I. Bill. A year later, he married Jean O'Brien of Ryan, Iowa, a graduate of the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota. They lived in the barracks at Iowa City, as many postwar students did at that time. He got his MD in 1950 and went to Letterman Army Hospital in San Francisco for his internship. In 1951 Jack and Jean returned to the barracks while he did his Residency training in Internal Medicine. They stayed on in Iowa City for 60 years, except for 1 year in Boston at Evans Memorial Hospital, where he started his research career under the supervision of Dr Robert W. Wilkins. They had 5 children: John, Charles, Ann, Tom, and Steve. Jack was proud of Jean's talent as a teacher, and of her personal achievements, such as being President of the National Council of Catholic Laity, and being appointed by President Carter as 1 of 5 special public advisers to the U.S. Delegation to the United Nations' Special Session on Disarmament. She stood tall by his side for 64 years and wept by his side when he took his last breath.
John Eckstein was a scientist of national and international recognition. His scientific work was on the circulation and venous tone, using patients to help patients. It was done 40 years before the NIH coined the phrase “patient-oriented research” and established the need for Translational Research directly applied to patients. Dr Eckstein was doing Translational Research since 1955.
Jack published his first paper in 1957, 3 years before I joined his laboratory. Of his first 12 papers, 7 were in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, 1 of the most prestigious and competitive journals then and now. This is an unbelievably precocious record. I joined him on his 23rd paper in 1961 and learned from him, collaborated with him, and copublished with him most of the work until his 75th and last scientific paper. During his deanship, when his focus was on planning and financing the future of the academy, on education, and on patient service, he never stopped publishing. His creative work appeared under titles like: “Public Opinion: Its Effects on Medical Education and Research,” “Decade of Change,” and “The Continuous Quest.” In 1989 he wrote a paper entitled, “2000 is Coming,” so he obviously was planning 10 years ahead. His last entry was in 1990: “Medical Research Wins Recognition, Support,” a title that aptly brought to a close the written gifts of this academic genius.
As for being a mentor, Jack was detail-oriented and persistent. He always wanted things to work right. When he had a problem, he would lay it out in detail before he began to solve it. He was always fixing things around the house and, in the laboratory, he fixed the respirators, the plastic tubing, the electric wires, the amplifiers. For me, this was a challenge. I never fixed anything around the house. One day he told me, “Frank, you'll never be a good scientist until you learn how to use these,” as he pulled out his pocket knife and a screw driver with his key chain. The next day I came to the laboratory with a screw driver, and I still carry my Swiss army knife. I think that's why I made it as a scientist. Another time, I had to learn to enjoy fishing. I recall vividly a 3-day fishing trip in Wisconsin where, for the entire time, we sat in the boat, in constant rain, fishing lines in the water, and none of us caught a thing, not even a minnow. But we had to try—every day—that was our goal. Although I am still a bad fisherman, I learned from him the joy and love of the scientific pursuit and the obligations of academic leadership. As my dean, he trusted me to serve as Head of the Department of Medicine, and I did so for 26 years. Under his mentorship, I became the founding director of the Cardiovascular Research Center, and I have had this role for 38 years.
John Eckstein's honors were vast and eminent. He became president of the National American Heart Association (AHA) and its 3 million people. He was on the National Institute of Health (NIH) Cardiovascular Study Section and chaired it. He was on the Advisory Council of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute as well as the Advisory Committee to the Director of the NIH. He was on numerous task forces and councils of the American Medical Association and the Association of American Medical Colleges. He was a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Sciences, the Association of American Physicians, the American Society for Clinical Investigation, and the American College of Physicians.
He was 1 of the youngest doctors to receive an Established Investigatorship of the AHA. He received the Gold Heart Award of the AHA, the Distinguished Service Award of the American Medical Association, and was named Distinguished Physician of the Department of Veterans Affairs. He was listed in the Alpha Omega Alpha (AOA) Roster of Leaders in American Medicine for posterity. He also received a Lifetime Research Career Development Award of the NIH, which he forfeited for the deanship. These accomplishments reflect great strength of character and spirit.
Jack was firm, with conviction, caring deeply with compassion but rarely showing his emotions. His smile was partly on his lips but mostly from his eyes. When he laughed it could be a roar, but when he cried, it was in silence. With sincerity and candor he could convey great joy. There was rarely ambivalence in his sense of what is wrong or right. He disliked the superficial and the boastful and was quick to recognize and smell the showmanship before it hit the ground. He would not compromise on issues of fairness or honesty. He had integrity, commitment, and a combination of simplicity and great strength. Sandy Boyd, a former University of Iowa President who appointed Jack as Dean, admired him greatly. When asked why, he said that Jack leads quietly. He is not flashy or flamboyant, but is very effective. When he said something, it gets done, and he is not looking for applause but for solutions in the long term.
Jack wanted to be remembered for being a person who made major contributions to the improvement of the University of Iowa. He would always say that his recognition was a tribute to his faculty and for the pride of Iowa. He never lost his vision for the College of Medicine, and always saw opportunities ahead. He was a catalyst who transformed the College from good to outstanding. He was a model for me and many others on how to succeed: Be true to yourself; follow your principles; and focus on work to be done, not on yourself, and you will accomplish an enormous amount. Jack thought institutions need to develop their own set of values—established by words, reactions, behaviors of the leaders from the very top (President, Board of Governors) and all the way down to give a sense of stability. Everyone should know what the objectives are, what the values are. The whole institution can move in the same direction. Stability can't be isolated—it needs to be all encompassing. Progress can then be made and the University can take advantage of all the opportunities available.
Jack left us a legacy and a model; the model of the physician who cares with compassion, and the scientist who probes with passion.
I remember seeing Jack and Jean at the old St. Thomas More Church every Sunday. As he went to Communion and back with his head down in veneration, I used to wonder about how strong and powerful he was as my dean and yet how dependent he knew he must be on his faith in his creator. Maybe these are the moments that captured his greatness for me.
The next morning after he left us, as I was writing these words, I looked at the sunrise and it was spectacular—The sky was brilliant red, but with more glittering golden rays than ever before. It was Hawkeye Gold. It seemed as if Jack was telling us that he was now part of a grander and eternal beauty and he was going to make sure it would live up to his standards.
I came to Iowa in 1960 to work in his laboratory for a year or 2 and stayed for 51 years. He was my guiding mentor, my inspiration, my champion, my dean. Whatever I have achieved in my career would not have been possible without him. He gave me even more than all that. He was my friend.
- © 2012 American Heart Association, Inc.