photo by Larry Kuzniewski
Dr. John Shea in 1980
In a city known for its medical advances, Dr. John Shea was a giant. Lauded by LIFE magazine (where he appeared on the cover), among many other publications for his pioneering work in the field of otology, Shea perfected techniques that brought hearing to deaf people, among countless other achievements. He passed away Sunday at age 90.
In the early years of this magazine, the August 1980 issue to be more specific, Kenneth Neill (now this publication’s editor and publisher) wrote a lengthy profile of Shea. Just an excerpt here will convey something of the genius and personality of this remarkable gentleman:
“Maverick. Visionary. Egomaniac. Miracle Worker. These are just a few of the epithets that have been applied to John Shea during the long and distinguished medical career that has brought him a generous share of both fame and fortune. During the late 1950s, he pioneered and developed a surgical technique that quite literally revolutionized otology, the science of the ear and its diseases. The procedure earned Shea a place in the London Times list of ‘1,000 Makers of the Twentieth Century.’ In 1964, he married Lynda Lee Mead, Miss America for 1960. And in 1967, he defied established medical etiquette by opening his own private hospital, an institution which has given him enormous personal freedom and added substantially to his personal wealth.
“Controversy has been a hallmark of Shea’s career. He is a fascinating character, a man beloved by some, disliked by others. ‘Impossible to work with,’ says one who has tried. ‘A tyrant,’ says another former Shea employee. ... In view of all this, perhaps the most surprising thing about John Shea is his demeanor. One expects a flamboyant personality. But the real Dr. Shea is something quite different. He sits, legs crossed, in an armchair in a small medical supply closet just off the O.R. A trim, athletic man in his mid-forties, Shea is soft-spoken and reserved. On the campus of a small liberal-arts college, he could easily pass for a classics professor. ...
“Not even his greatest detractors question Shea’s abilities as a surgeon or the amount of effort he puts into being a first-rate otologist. John Shea is not a golf-every-afternoon-at-the-club doctor. Granted, he does have everything money can buy and lives in a magnificent home on Shady Grove. But he still works as hard as ever, arriving at the hospital around 9 a.m. and tackling from seven to 10 surgical cases every day and spending an hour or two dealing with administrative problems. Often he’s still in the operating room at 7 p.m. When he finishes, he makes his daily rounds, checking on those new patients whom he couldn’t see earlier. Rarely is he home before 8 at night.
“Why does he do it? Money is no longer an object, and he has earned as much professional recognition as any doctor in America. Shea himself suggests that constant work is essential to success: ‘If I stop, I lose my edge. I’m a much better surgeon on Friday afternoon than on Monday morning.’ Whatever the reasons, one thing is certain: the operating room is his real home.
“The structure of the Memphis Eye and Ear Hospital is built around John Shea. Everything is done to make his home-away-from-home as comfortable as possible and to allow him to devote all his energies to otology. There is literally always someone at his side, ready to do whatever errands need to be done. Throughout the day, Dr. Shea is in total control of his environment.
“He gives this as his primary reason for setting up his own clinic and hospital: ‘I couldn’t do a thing, and I’d never have peace of mind, if I had hospital people ordering me around to do this or that. To create — for me at least — you need to have an environment of calm. A lack of tension. That’s the key.’”
A visitation will be held Friday, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Canale Funeral Home, 2700 Union Extended. Funeral services will take place at 11 a.m. on Saturday at St. Peter’s Catholic Church, 150 Adams.