HAPPY BIRTHDAY, JANET TRAVELL, AND THANK YOU!
Janet Travell’s 100th birthday was December 17th, 2001.
To honor her memory I have written a synopsis of her contributions (below) which I would like to see disseminated as widely as possible.
An easy method, if you feel so inclined, would be to forward this to those in your address book who may be interested in the life of this incredible woman.
Another relatively easy method is to send it (electronically is the only way you will get it there in time for Monday’s editions) as a “letter to the editor” of your local newspaper. I will send it to the Associated Press, UPI and several major newspapers.
Please feel free to use this, with or without my byline, in any way you feel will help others learn more about Dr. Travell and, perhaps, find a solution to their pain.
(If you send it as a letter to the editor of your newspaper and sign your name as the author, it may well serve as an effective and free form of advocacy and awareness).
I would be interested in knowing in how many newspapers this appeared; please send me that info and I will disseminate it at a later date.
When I wake up on Monday morning (Janet was born at 1:45 am EST), I will spend some time in quiet reflection and gratitude. I frequently invoke her spirit to help me become a better therapist; I encourage you to do the same.
3310 Fox Place
San Diego, Ca 92117
Happy 100th birthday to one of the 20th century’s most remarkable and respected physicians.
She is credited with salvaging John F. Kennedy’s political career and has been called his administration’s greatest gift to the American people.
Her peers claim she is responsible for “alleviating more pain, in more patients, than anyone else in history”.
Dr. Janet G. Travell – the trigger point therapy “queen” – was born December 17, 1901. She lived 95 amazingly productive years faithful to her often repeated aphorisms: “Life is like a bicycle, you don’t fall off until you stop pedaling”; and “I’d rather rust out than wear out”.
She authored more than 100 scientific articles and co-authored, with Dr. David G. Simons, Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: The Trigger Point Manual. This two-volume text, revered by practitioners and grateful patients as the “Red Bible”, is a meticulously crafted “how-to” gem, a monumental contribution to the understanding and treatment of enigmatic pain.
As comfortable with writing poetry as with overhauling her Ford Model T’s engine, Travell was a true Renaissance woman:
She was Phi Beta Kappa as well as three-time campus tennis champion at Wellesley College. She finished at the top of her 1926 Cornell University Medical class.
She published important findings on the drug digitalis and invented a painless technique for giving injections to people – and dolphins.
Her concern with ill-fitting chairs as a perpetuator of muscular pain led her into the realm of industrial seating design where she developed seating specifications for trucks, tractors, airplanes, bicycles and plumbing fixtures. She introduced John Kennedy to the benefits of the old-fashioned rocking chair, which then became an emblem of his administration and had the effect of re-popularizing rockers.
Travell served on posts in pharmacology, cardiology and pulmonary medicine, as well as a stint as a New York City ambulance surgeon. She found that, wherever she served, there was a common dragon to be slayed: pain.
Early in her eclectic career, Travell noticed that similar shoulder pain in different patients would be diagnosed uniquely depending upon who was doing the diagnosing. The pulmonary doctor would view the pain as a reflex from the lung; the cardiologist would diagnose it as heart reflex pain. A general practitioner reviewing precisely the same complaint in a secretary who spent all day typing would determine that the pain was “psychosomatic”.
But Travell’s legendary curiosity was more powerful than medical dogma. She possessed tremendous powers of observation, was a gifted listener and demonstrated boundless empathy for people in pain; it was not uncommon for her to spend 2-3 hours caring for individual patients.
Through her multi-disciplinary background and with her unique skills and personality, Travell was able to document that the pain from all three groups of patients could be caused by muscular trigger points . . . and she would make the pain go away.
Such was the case in 1955 with Senator John Kennedy.
“I met John Kennedy when he was the junior Senator from Massachusetts”, Travell would later recount. “He suffered greatly from war wounds and failed surgeries. When he first came to me he had been on crutches so long he had calluses under his arm pits.”
Travell relieved Kennedy of his pain and crutches in time for his grueling presidential race. In her 1968 autobiography, Travell says she was “tickled” on July 4, 1960 while she watched the formerly crippled presidential candidate declare to a national television audience that “the White House needs a young man of strength, health, and vigor”.
Given the severity and complexity of his injuries, coupled with his poor response to conventional treatment, it is now generally accepted that without the unique expertise of Dr. Travell, the hobbled senator’s political career would have ended prematurely. Without Janet Travell, there would have been no President John F. Kennedy.
Once in the Oval Office, Kennedy picked Travell as his personal doctor – the first woman “White House Physician”. She served both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, as well as their families, by whom she was greatly appreciated and beloved.
Kennedy encouraged Travell to use her national visibility as a platform to teach other doctors her special skills for treating muscle pain. He also sent her office a steady stream of politicians and White House guests to benefit from her magic touch.
“He would call me himself, saying ‘Doctor, do something about it’. Such an order from the President delighted me”, Travell said. “Seeing patients was the breath of my medical existence.”
One such Presidential referral to Dr. Travell was Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, who would later pen this February 24, 1960 letter:
Dear Mr. President:
For a time I thought you had developed a new way to get rid of this particular Republican, the method being to monopolize the services of Dr. Travell, but yesterday she called and told me of your personal interest, and I cannot begin to thank you enough for this.
You will probably do many fine things in your life, but I doubt you will ever do anything finer for the American people than you have done in bringing this remarkable woman to their attention. I recall that you said it was your desire to do this, and now that you have done it you should be very proud.
I am willing to bet you think, as I do at times, that the sweetness and graciousness of this lady does as much for our aching muscles as her chills and needles.
My best wishes to you always,
The personal aspects of Travell’s life were as successful and rewarding as her professional feats. She and her “southern gentleman” husband, Jack Powell, enjoyed a storybook romance and raised two accomplished daughters.
Of all her titles, “Tocter Tarbell” – as then-toddler John Kennedy, Jr. called her – said that she was most proud of the title “bride”.
Once asked when she found time to do it all, Travell replied, “In those long hours between midnight and bedtime”.
As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Janet Travell’s birth, it is deeply satisfying to those who have benefited from and appreciate the value of her contributions to witness an acceleration in the adoption of a trigger point approach to diagnosing and conquering the modern plagues – headaches, backaches, repetitive stress injuries and other muscular pain of “unexplained origin”.
While those who personally knew Janet Travell will never forget her charm, brilliance, empathy and vitality, it is her giant strides in understanding and eliminating pain that ensure this pioneering woman an enduring legacy.
Most recent revision Wednesday, September 11, 2002