2 Biographies

BIOGRAPHY 1 (2002):

My Mother, Janet Travell

by Virginia Street

Janet Graham Travell, known as Bobby, was born in New York City on December 17th, 1901. At an early age she decided to become a doctor. She graduated from Wellesley College in 1922 and the Cornell University Medical College in 1926. After her medical residency at The New York Hospital, she married John W.G. “Jack” Powell of Roxobel, Bertie County, NC, an investment counselor. The couple had two children, Janet and Virginia.

Janet Travell practiced medicine with her father, John Willard Travell, M.D., at 9 West 16th Street in New York City. They both specialized in muscle pain. In 1955 Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts was referred to her as a patient due to chronic pain in his knee and lower back. The relief that her treatments gave him also offered him “new hope for a life free from crutches if not from backache,” wrote his friend and advisor, Ted Sorensen, in his book KENNEDY. (1)

In early 1961 Janet Travell and her husband moved to Washington, D.C. at the request of President Kennedy who invited her to be his White House Physician. She remained at the White House under President Lyndon B. Johnson until the end of March, 1965, and then resigned her post in order to return to private life and to work on her autobiography and medical textbook.

Her autobiography was published in 1968 and her two-volume medical textbook, co-authored with David G. Simons, M.D., was published in 1983 and 1992.  In 1999 (after her death), a Second Edition of Volume 1 was published, co-authored with Dr. Simons and his wife.

Janet Travell noted in the Preface of the textbook that, except for her years at the White House, she “never strayed from her primary focus on the diagnosis and management of myofascial pain syndromes due to trigger points.” (2)

It has been written about her that “among those who recognize the reality and importance of myofascial pain, [Janet Travell] is generally recognized as the leading pioneer in diagnosis and treatment. Few would deny that she single-handedly created this branch of medicine. Her revolutionary concepts about pain have improved the lives of millions of people.” (3) 

Janet Travell and her younger daughter, Virginia, moved to Northampton, MA, in June 1996. Janet Travell died at her home there on August 1, 1997.

Janet Travell’s older daughter, Janet, resides in Milan, Italy, and Westerly, RI.


(1) Theodore C. Sorensen, Special Counsel to the President,
KENNEDY, New York, Harper & Row, 1965, p. 40.

(2) Travell, Janet G. and Simons, David G.,
Volume 1, The Upper Extremities, Williams & Wilkins, 1983, Preface, p. xii.

Oakland (CA): New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 2001, p. 15.


BIOGRAPHY 2 (1961):

CURRENT BIOGRAPHY – Janet G. Travell – December 1961:

“TRAVELL, JANET G(RAEME) Dec. 17, 1901 –         . Physician.
Address: b. The White House Office, Washington, D.C., h. 3319 N St., N.W., Washington, D.C.

Among the brisk and vigorous associates whom President John F. Kennedy has gathered about him, one of the most youthful in outlook is the graying grandmother who serves as his personal physician. Dr. Janet G. Travell, the first woman ever to hold the post and the first civilian to do so since the administration of Warren G. Harding, has been described as a medical genius by the President, who has been her patient since 1955. On January 26, 1961 she was appointed to succeed Major General Howard McC. Snyder, President Eisenhower’s personal physician, as the White House doctor. Before her appointment she had maintained a private practice in New York, served as associate professor of clinical pharmacology at Cornell University Medical College, and been a member of the staffs of both New York and Beth Israel hospitals. She has specialized in the study and treatment of musculoskeletal pain.

Janet Graeme Travell was born in New York City on December 17, 1901, the younger daughter of Dr. Willard and Janet (Davidson) Travell. Her father, who died in August 1961 at the age of ninety-one, practiced medicine in New York for sixty years. An apostle of exercise and a specialist in the relief of pain through physical medicine, Dr. Travell passed his interests and his ideas on to his daughters, both of whom became physicians. His elder daughter is Dr. Virginia T. Weeks, a pediatrician who practices in Brooklyn. (Janet Travell also has two stepbrothers, one of whom is Dr. Talcott Bates of Monterey, California, and a stepsister).

For her elementary and secondary school education, Janet Travell attended the Brearley School in New York City. She was something of a tomboy, and when not in school she could usually be found batting a tennis ball in the backyard of the family’s Manhattan home or playing in Washington Square Park. During summer vacations in Sheffield, Massachusetts, Janet and her sister used to catch frogs and turtles to present to their father for informal lessons in anatomy.

After her graduation from Brearley, Miss Travell entered Wellesley College, her mother’s alma mater, where she won not only a Phi Beta Kappa key, but three campus tennis championships as well. She received her B.A. degree from Wellesley in 1922 and returned to New York City to study at Cornell University Medical College, from which she graduated with the M.D. degree in 1926, at the head of her class. She was awarded the John Metcalf Polk Memorial Prize in recognition of her academic standing.

From 1927 to 1929 Dr. Travell served her internship at New York Hospital, which is affiliated with the Cornell Medical College. At the same time, she served as an ambulance surgeon with the New York City police force, holding the rank of lieutenant. Her beat was a rough one – it covered the waterfront, West Side subway stations, and the old Hell’s Kitchen area; and her schedule was even rougher – one night off every third day. But she still had enough energy to go out dancing on her free evenings.

At the end of her internship, Dr. Travell was appointed a house physician at New York Hospital, becoming the only woman doctor on its staff. She remained there until her appointment to the White House staff, except for one period when she was transferred to Bellevue Hospital to work intensively with pneumonia patients. She had won a fellowship that enabled her to work with specialists of the Rockefeller Institute, Cornell, and Bellevue. To determine whether the common practice of giving doses of digitalis to pneumonia patients was sound, she tested some 1000 patients for a year and a half and concluded that digitalis doses should not only be smaller, but more selective. In 1930 Cornell Medical College signaled its recognition of the importance of this research by giving her an instructorship in pharmacology. She remained at Cornell, also, until her present appointment, achieving the rank of associate professor of clinical pharmacology in 1952.

From 1936 to 1945 Dr. Travell served as assistant, then associate, visiting cardiologist at Sea View Hospital in Staten Island, and, under a fellowship from the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation, she studied arterial disease at Beth Israel Hospital in New York City from 1939 to 1941. There she became absorbed in the study of new pain-relieving techniques, a field in which she pioneered. She later joined the staff at Beth Israel and, at the time of her White House appointment, was an associate physician at Beth Israel’s cardiovascular research unit. Throughout this entire period Dr. Travell also maintained a private practice, sharing offices with her father. Her private patients included a number of prize fighters and other athletes, as well as John F. Kennedy.

Like her father, Dr. Janet Travell began her career as a general medical practitioner with a special interest in the problems of relieving pain. After working as a cardiologist, with particular emphasis upon chest pain, she moved into the field of orthopedic medicine, where she specialized in the relief of musculoskeletal pain.

It was this specialty that led John F. Kennedy, then a Senator, to Dr. Travell. He was referred to her in 1955 by his orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Philip D. Wilson, because he was suffering severe back pain after the second of two operations on his spine. To relieve this pain, caused by a muscle spasm, Dr. Travell injected low-strength procaine (a form of Novocain) directly into the muscle. She also discovered that one of the President’s legs was slightly shorter than the other, causing additional strain on the muscles of the lower back. By prescribing a quarter-inch lift for his left shoe, she was able to eliminate this source of discomfort. It was this successful treatment that moved the President to call her a genius. Dr. Travell has also treated other members of Kennedy’s family, among them both his parents and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy…

As the President’s physician, Dr. Travell also supervises the White House dispensary, whose staff, headed by Navy Captain George C. Burkley, includes two corpsmen and a nurse. The services of the dispensary are available to members of the President’s official family and to all members of the White House staff…

A strong believer, as was her father, in exercise as an adjunct to physical fitness, Dr. Travell recommends regular doses of some exercise to which the individual is accustomed and ‘to which his muscles are trained.’ Since the President is a good swimmer, she has suggested a daily dip in the White House pool. She also encourages him to spend some time on the golf course and tennis court, and she [occasionally] plays tennis with him.

Another form of exercise that Dr. Travell recommends is the mild muscular activity provided by an old-fashioned rocking chair. At her suggestion, Kennedy has been using such a chair since he became her patient. When, as President, he had his $24.95 rocker stained mahogany and moved to his White House office, its creak echoed across the country. Thousands rushed to buy ‘a Kennedy rocker,’ and the chair’s manufacturer increased its production by several hundred per cent.

Dr. Travell is interested not only in rockers, but in all types of chairs, having become an authority on seating as a result of her studies of muscle strain. She believes that there is no such thing as an all-purpose chair, but that each chair should be selected with the purpose for which it is to be used in mind. Moreover, she believes chairs have to ‘fit’ their occupants – that is, a person six feet tall and one five feet five inches would not be comfortable sitting in the same chair.

Her expert knowledge has led to her employment as a consultant to such industrial designers as Henry Dreyfuss, and she has helped to design not only a more comfortable seat for farm tractors (she insisted on so many costly changes that the firm at first almost regretted hiring her), but also the tilt-back seat on the Lockheed Electra turbojet. In October 1955 Dr. Travell put her ideas on seating into an article for HOUSE BEAUTIFUL, Chairs Are a Personal Thing, in which she maintained: ‘The mind can absorb no more than the seat can endure.’

Dr. Travell’s more technical articles have appeared in the American Journal of Physical Medicine, the New York Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and other professional publications. The definitive book The Management of Pain (Lea & Febiger, 1953) by Dr. John J. Bonica cites Dr. Travell’s findings extensively. Her pioneering work in the relief of pain has been furthered by research grants from the National Heart Institute of the National Institutes of Health and the Lieutenant Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation…

A registered Republican before the 1960 election, Dr. Travell crossed party lines to work in the ‘Doctors for Kennedy’ campaign and vote for her patient. She also treated his political opponent, Republican Senator Barry M. Goldwater, whom Kennedy referred to her when they were colleagues in the Senate.

In private life, Dr. Travell is Mrs. John W.G. Powell. Her husband, whom she married in June 1929, is an investment counselor with Trainer Wortham & Company. He was a skilled athlete who turned down contracts with three major league baseball clubs in order to go into finance. The Powell’s daughters are Janet,…an operatic soprano, and Virginia,…a painter and sculptor whose works decorate her mother’s White House office…

Tall and trim, Dr. Travell is five feet eight and a half inches in height; she has hazel eyes and graying hair. She is an expert swimmer, skater, and horseback rider as well as a tennis player. Following her own prescription of choosing the right exercise for the right surroundings, she enjoys chopping trees to clear the view at her Sheffield, Massachusetts summer home. Her manual dexterity is so remarkable that one of her colleagues once said that she ‘has fingers as sensitive as an old-time safecracker.’”


NY Post p42 Ja 27 ’61 por
NY Times p7 Ja 27 ’61 por
Newsweek 57:79 F 6 ’61 por
Sat Eve Post 234:66+ O 21 ’61 pors
Time 77:65 F 3 ’61 por
Washington (D.C.) Post B p6 Ja 27 ’61 por; F pl+F 19 ’61 pors
New Frontiersmen (1961)






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *