State and national eminence in the medical profession came to Dr. John W. Keefe of Providence, Rhode Island, through his exceptional skill as a surgeon and his many notable and humane achievements in a career in which his service in his chosen profession was distinguished for nearly half a century. He was a founder of St. Joseph’s Hospital, a World War I surgeon, and president of the Rhode Island Medical Society and the American Association of Obstetricians, Gynecologists, and Abdominal Surgeons.
The years of his professional labor in large hospitals motivated him to build a smaller surgical center without the inefficiencies of many wards and physicians. Dr. Keefe noted that the proportionate mortality in a smaller hospital was much less than in the large hospitals. It was his dream to build and operate a thoroughly modern surgical center equipped with every comfort and convenience, with a staff of medical specialists and carefully selected nurses and attendants, under the direction of one responsible head. As a result of his study. Dr. Keefe founded The John W. Keefe Surgery Center in 1913 at 262 Blackstone Boulevard, Providence, an institution exceptional for many reasons. Dr. Keefe studied all improvements in hospital construction before work began. The operating room was one of the finest in the country, equipped with the latest technology. He assembled the best medical team available and gave them the support they needed to deliver the ultimate in-patient care. Problems that could not be solved in the larger hospitals were skillfully handled, and scientific surgery saved many patients.
Dr. Keefe’s remarkable skill as a surgeon earned him recognition from his professional associates and a reputation among his fellow citizens in Rhode Island almost as soon as he began active practice. He promoted surgery with a preacher’s zeal. His generation was the first to utilize practical anesthesia, which was less than fifty years old, and to employ effective asepsis, which came into use around the time he came to Rhode Island. Within a few years, his name was familiar throughout Rhode Island as a successful surgeon, and his services were sought constantly in complex and unusually delicate operations, many of which were almost desperate final efforts to save lives.
John William Keefe was born of Irish parentage in Worcester, Massachusetts, on April 25, 1863, son of Denis and Alice (McGrath) Keefe. He attended the public schools and, at the age of nineteen, enrolled as a student in the Department of Medicine and Surgery at the University of Michigan, 1882-83, which had at that time many eminent men as members of its faculty, with Dr. Angell as president. Among them were Dr. Donald McLean, surgeon; Dr. Corydon L. Ford, anatomist; Dr. Dunster, gynecologist; and Dr. Victor C. Vaughan, chemist. Among his classmates were Dr. William Mayo and Dr. Hubert Work. These valued associations were an inspiration to him in his later career. They stimulated professional work to place Dr. Keefe among the country’s leading surgeons.
Family records indicate an Irish immigrant’s solid work ethic. “John W. Keefe typified the socially upwardly Irish Americans of his generation,” according to Dr. Patrick T. Conley, historian laureate of Rhode Island. Dr. Keefe credited his time in Michigan for his professional future: “At Ann Arbor, the atmosphere from traditions, of wholesome democracy, and of serious effort made a profound impression upon the young student,” he said. Dr. Keefe used this background to galvanize reliable scientific foundations, establish reliable procedures, and formulate a code of ethics for surgical practice.
On April 24, 1895, John William Keefe married Statia Sherman Maher, daughter of Thomas Sherman and Ellen Frances Maher, of Brookline, Massachusetts. They became the parents of Alice Sherman, Helen Constance, Gertrude Sherman, and Mary Ruth Keefe. He obtained his degree of Doctor of Medicine at the University Medical College, New York University, in 1884, and in 1909, Manhattan College conferred upon him the degree of Doctor of Laws in recognition of his contributions to medical literature. After graduation, Dr. Keefe served as an intern at Bellevue Hospital, New York, on the surgical service, an experience that largely determined his career. He worked there under such surgeons as Dr. Lewis A. Stimson. Dr. Stephen Smith, Dr. Charles McBurney, and Dr. William S. Halstead. In scientific research, he enjoyed close associations with famous heads of departments at John Hopkins Hospital: Dr. Halstead, Dr. Kelley, and Dr. Ousler, later Sir William Ousler.
Dr. Keefe was very active in the foundation of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Providence, and for thirty-five years, he worked for the Rhode Island Hospital. He was a consulting surgeon at the following hospitals: Rhode Island, St. Joseph’s, Providence Lying-In, Providence City, at Providence; Westerly; Woonsocket; South County at Wakefield; Memorial at Pawtucket. He was a retired major in the Medical Reserve Corps and served in the United States Army Medical Department during the Great War. He was president of the Rhode Island Medical Society (1913-1917), president of the American Association of Obstetricians, Gynecologists and Abdominal Surgeons (1916-17), and president of the New England Surgical Society (1924-25). He was the first president of the Catholic Club of Providence and was a Knight of Columbus, fourth degree. He was a member of the Public Welfare Commission and Commission of State Charities and Correction for several years. He was a director of the Union Trust of Providence.
His interest in surgical matters made him a constant contributor to various journals and societies. He was a member of the following organizations and clubs: American Medical Association; Fellow and one of the founders of both the American College of Surgeons and the New England Surgical Society; Fellow of the American Association of Obstetricians, Gynecologists and Abdominal Surgeons; Rhode Island Medical Society; Providence Medical Association; Bellevue Hospital Alumni Association; Friday Night Medical Club; American Legion; Hope Club; Catholic Club; and Rhode Island Country Club.
“The good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the person who has the disease,” Dr. William Ousler once said. No physician lived up to those words better than Dr. Keefe. He always stood for that which was the highest and best in his profession and will never be forgotten by the poor he faithfully served.
Dr. John W. Keefe died on February 3, 1935, at the age of 72. He was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2009.
For additional reading:
The Irish in Rhode Island: A Historical Appreciation, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley. RI Publications Society, 1986.