Jonathan E. Rhoads

Robert W. Crawford
R. Stewart Rauch, Jr.

Dr. Jonathan Rhoads won the Philadelphia Award for his prolific work as a scientist, surgeon, educator, and administrator. Born to a Quaker family who traced their Pennsylvania roots back to 1682, Rhoads’ religious faith drove much of his life and legacy. He attended Germantown Friends, Westtown School, Haverford College and John Hopkins University (all Quaker-affiliated schools). He was an active member of Germantown Friends Meeting. He served on committees overseeing Germantown Friends and Westtown School, as well as on the boards of Bryn Mawr and Haverford colleges. Rhoads traveled on medical missions to Vietnam and Korea through the American Friends Service Committee.

R hoads worked for organizations that were founded by Benjamin Franklin. He was the president of the American Philosophical Society (1976-1984) and chair of the department of surgery (1959-1972) at the University of Pennsylvania, where he had been a surgeon at the university hospital since 1932. Rhoads was provost of the university (1956-1959). At various times, he served as president or chairman of virtually all of the professional organizations for surgeons. The frequency with which he was chosen for leadership positions reflected his reputation for getting things done. Rhoads credited his practice of Quaker consensus building with his success as a leader. He described his technique: “…there are two times when you can speak most effectively in a group. One is when the thing starts off, and sometimes if you then take a strong position, it doesn’t solve the controversy but it sort of directs it. The other way is to wait until the discussion is pretty well advanced and see whether you can find a solution that will reconcile enough points of view to prevail.”

It was his work in the medical field, and primary care surgery, for which he is most remembered. He was a leader of the American Cancer Society, and for twenty years was editor of its journal, Cancer. Appointed by President Richard Nixon, Rhoads chaired the National Cancer Advisory Board from 1972 until 1979. As a professor in the Medical School, Rhoads was renowned as a trainer of surgeons—eleven of his students became chairs of surgery at other medical schools.

As a researcher, Rhoads published over 400 scientific articles in his career. His research focused on problems of nutrition among hospital patients. He began experimentation on this subject during the 1930s, worked on it for decades with colleagues, leading to the invention in 1966, with Dr. Stanley Dudrick, of the practice of intravenous hyperalimentation. This technique involved the puncture of the subclavian vein and enabled feeding of patients who could not tolerate standard intravenous feeding. This major medical breakthrough saved the lives of thousands of patients who were unable to eat.

His work ethic was astounding. He technically never retired. Well into his nineties Rhoads was attending meetings, giving lectures, and writing. Two weeks before his death he was in his office tending to business. His biographers Donna Muldoon and John Rombeau give an example of his fortitude: on a particular day in 1996 Rhoads attended a 7:00 a.m. medical conference at Penn; later that morning he was in Center City attending another meeting; by noon he was at the American Philosophical Society; at 4:00 he was back at Penn for another lecture and dinner. The next day he flew off to Rome for a joint meeting of the APS and the Academia Nazionale dei Lincei. Later he attended a reception at the American Embassy and had an audience with the Pope. The next day he and his wife flew to Sicily to go sightseeing. This was when he was 89.

Lee Arnold

Sources: Karl Stark, “For Teaching Hospitals, a Painful Education,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 10, 1999; Kristin E. Holmes, “Jonathan Evans Rhoads,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Jan. 5, 2002; Joan Klein, “Dr. Jonathan E. Rhoads, Legendary Surgeon, Dies,” Oncology Times, vol. 24, no. 2 (Feb. 2002); Clyde F. Barker, “Jonathan Rhoads, MD,” Annals of Surgery, May 2002; Obituary, Almanac between Issues, Jan. 3, 2002; Who was Who in America, vol. 14 (New Providence, NJ, 2002); “Teresa Folin Rhoads,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 14, 1987; John L. Rombeau and Donna Muldoon, Jonathan E. Rhoads, M.D. (Phila., 1997).