August 2, 1997, Section B4
JFK Physician Janet G. Travell Dies at 95
by Louie Estrada
Janet G. Travell, 95, who as physician to President John F. Kennedy and his family was the first woman to hold that White House post, died Aug. 1 of congestive heart failure at her home in Northampton, Mass.
Dr. Travell became widely known in the 1960s for tending to Kennedy’s lingering back problems as well as for her prescriptions of swimming and the use of a rocking chair as therapy to ease his pain. She believed that a rocking chair relieved tension in the lower back by keeping the muscles moving, contracting and relaxing. Kennedy’s oak rocker, with hand-woven cane seat and back, sparked a national revival of the old-fashioned rocking chair.
Kennedy described her as a medical genius at the time of her appointment in 1961. The appointment ruffled a few feathers among members of the Washington establishment, especially in the military, which had regularly staffed the White House position since the early 1920s.
Dr. Travell had been Kennedy’s doctor since 1955, when she was called to see him after the second operation on his back, which had been injured during World War II. By that time, she had established herself in New York, first as a heart specialist, then as a specialist in treating painful muscular conditions.
She was born in New York, the daughter of a Manhattan physician. She graduated from Wellesley College and Cornell University’s medical college.
She began her career at New York Hospital in 1927. She studied arterial disease at Beth Israel Hospital and, from 1936 to 1945, was a cardiologist at Sea View Hospital in Staten Island, N.Y. As an associate professor of clinical pharmacology at Cornell, she pursued an interest in pain, specifically the relief of muscle spasms, an area of medicine in which her father had been a pioneer.
In 1955, Dr. Travell first treated Kennedy, then the junior senator from Massacahusetts, with Novocain to relax the cramps in his spinal muscles. She then discovered that Kennedy’s left leg was three-quarters of an inch shorter than his right leg, which increased back strain. She recommended that he wear [a heel lift] to offset the difference.
Kennedy was reported to have said that Dr. Travell’s treatment and gentle counseling changed his life. In the following years, Dr. Travell treated other members of the Kennedy family, including Robert F. Kennedy for pain in his neck, which he injured skin-diving in Acapulco after the 1960 election; Joseph P. Kennedy for a shoulder ailment; and Robert Kennedy’s oldest daughter, Kathleen, for leg pains.
While at the White House, Dr. Travell became known as a woman with patrician dignity and a fey sense of humor.
She continued to monitor Kennedy’s back problems. They flared up once after the president shoveled dirt in a ceremonial tree-planting in Canada.
During this period, she joined the staff of George Washington University Hospital and its medical school, advising and teaching physical medicine and clinical rehabilitation.
After Kennedy’s assassination, Dr. Travell…was persuaded to stay a few more years by President Lyndon B. Johnson. She did, sharing her duties with another physician, George C. Burkley, then a Navy rear admiral. She left the White House in 1965.
After leaving the White House, she published her autobiography, “Office Hours: Day and Night” and [co-authored with David G. Simons, M.D.] the medical text, “Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction. The Trigger Point Manual.”
An avid proponent of diet and exercise, she enjoyed horseback riding and tennis. It was said that she outscored her most famous patient on the tennis court.
Her husband, John W.G. Powell, died in 1973. Survivors include two daughters, Virginia P. Wilson of Northampton and Janet Powell Pinci of Milan, Italy, and six grandchildren.
The New York Times
Saturday, August 2, 1997
Janet Travell, 95, Doctor Chosen To Treat Kennedy’s Back Pain
by David Stout
WASHINGTON, Aug. 1 – Dr. Janet Travell Powell, who as President John F. Kennedy’s personal physician treated his chronic back problems and in doing so helped to inspire revival of the old-fashioned rocking chair, died today at her home in Northampton, Mass. She was 95.
Dr. Travell, as she was known professionally, had moved to Massachusetts a year ago from Washington.
Dr. Travell became widely known in 1961, when she became the first woman to be personal physician to a President. The appointment caused a minor stir, especially in the military, which had bee providing medical care to Presidents, their spouses and their children since the 1920s…
Early in her White House days, Dr. Travell was the focus of some political infighting, enough that one newspaper speculated that she might be forced to resign. As she recalled later in an interview, she became aware of the dissension and approached the President.
“I will do anything I can for you as long as you wish,” Dr. Travell told him. “But I am ready to leave at a moment’s notice, if that is your pleasure.”
Kennedy replied, “I don’t want you to leave. If I do, I will let you know”…
Daily Hampshire Gazette
Weekend Gazette/Region, August 2-3, 1997
Janet Travell, Kennedy doctor, dies in city at 95
by Michelle Aguilar
NORTHAMPTON – Janet Travell, 95, an accomplished medical researcher who made headlines when John F. Kennedy named her White House physician – the first woman and first civilian to hold that post – died yesterday at home in Northampton.
Travell – who grew up in New York but spent summers at a Sheffield [Massachusetts] home bought in 1912 by her father, Dr. Willard Travell – published over 100 books and articles on the medical field of myofascial (muscle) pain. During the 1950s, she designed ergonomic seating for Lockheed jets and John Deere tractors.
“We still have the yellow mock-up (seat) she designed for John Deere tractors in our home,” said daughter Virginia Wilson, who lives at 40 Norfolk Ave., Friday night. “It makes a nice chair”…
“She was offered a military position, but turned it down,” said her grandson, Gordon Street. “She didn’t want to have that authority over her.”
“(Kennedy) always told Mummy that if it hadn’t been for her, he never would’ve been able to run for president,” said Wilson.
According to the family, Travell also treated Mrs. Kennedy and the Kennedy children, and became close to the [Kennedy] family…She even contributed a poem to Edward Kennedy’s “The Golden Bough,” [a book he edited about his father, Joseph P. Kennedy].
In fact, one of Travell’s most treasured and bittersweet possessions was an embossed leather book of U.S. inaugural addresses that Kennedy had bought Travell for Christmas shortly before he died, Wilson said.
Travell left the White House in 1965, tired of what she referred to as “the fishbowl” life in the White House public eye, Wilson said. She returned to practicing myofascial medicine, now in Washington, and became an avid advocate for better understanding of myofascial pain in the medical world. She co-authored a book on the subject that is now one of the standard textbooks in the field, according to Street.
“She always had a strong sense of what she wanted to do with her life and her career,” he said. “When she started out, research (in her field) wasn’t taken very seriously. But she believed in the importance of her field, and she kept at it.”
The Boston Globe
August 3, 1997, Section C22, Associated Press
JANET TRAVELL POWELL, physician to Kennedy, Johnson; at 95
Janet Travell Powell, personal physician to presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, died Friday at her home in Northampton. She was 95.
“She was a marvelous lady,” said colleague Dr. Ben Daitz of the University of New Mexico. “I think one of the greatest physicians of the century. This is a lady who is worthy of a tribute.”
Janet Travell, as she was known professionally, specialized in pain management, and helped Kennedy with his chronic back problems.
When Kennedy was junior senator from Massachusetts, he came to visit Dr. Travell in her New York office, according to her brother Clark Travell. “He was on crutches. She put him back in the world. The rest is history,” her brother said.
She recommended Kennedy use a rocking chair because it is the one thing that exercises all muscles in the body, her brother said. The rocking chair became part of Kennedy’s public image.
She went on to become White House physician under both Kennedy and Johnson.
Dr. Travell was among a family of doctors. She was born in 1901 to Dr. Willard and Janet Travell in New York City, where she grew up.
She went to Wellesley College and Cornell University Medical School with her older sister, Dr. Virginia Travell Weeks.
She had a private practice in New York City for 30 years and in Washington, D.C. before moving to Northampton a year ago.
Among her patients were Senator Barry Goldwater, Ambassador to India Chester Bowles, and Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn.
A memorial service will be held at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 15. Another memorial gathering will be held in Albany, N.Y., on Aug. 23.