• September 2018

    A giant in medicine who almost wasn’t

John Fordtran, MD, is known worldwide for his groundbreaking contributions to the field of gastroenterology. From writing textbooks to conducting game-changing research to receiving some of medicine’s most distinguished international awards, the 87-year-old’s career has been nothing short of prolific.

But if it hadn’t been for the influence and help of his parents, mentors and colleagues he respected so greatly, he never would have had the chance to change the field of GI medicine. In fact, he would never have become a physician at all.

Unlike many physicians who aspire to the profession since childhood, Dr. Fordtran always thought he’d be taking over the family dairy farm outside of Stockdale in South Texas.

“When I finished high school in 1949, I wanted to go to college and then work on the dairy farm,” explains Dr. Fordtran. “But my dad said ‘no’ because of the hard, physical work and difficulty making a profit.”

His father gave him three options for a profession: medicine, law or engineering

“I respected and trusted my father,” he says simply.

After choosing medicine, his father drove him to Austin to sign up for a pre-med education. His father paid all the bills, and Dr. Fordtran had no debts when he finished his training.

Blood to Guts

Dr. Fordtran went on to graduate from Tulane Medical School before coming to Dallas to complete his internship and residency in internal medicine at Parkland. During his time at Parkland, he developed great admiration for Don Seldin, MD, chief of medicine for UT Southwestern (UTSW).

After his internal medicine training, Dr. Fordtran had the opportunity to work at the Clinical Center of the the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD. There, he developed an interest in academic medicine, and he wrote Dr. Seldin a letter, asking his help in obtaining a hematology fellowship.

However, Dr. Seldin had other plans, and he thought Dr. Fordtran would be more successful in the underdeveloped subspecialty of gastroenterology. Moreover, he had already arranged for him to become a research fellow of the renowned gastroenterologist Franz Ingelfinger, MD, in Boston.

“What I learned from Franz Ingelfinger was the importance of accurate analytical chemistry. Fellows had to do their own analytical work without any help from laboratory technicians. He instilled the importance of avoiding observer bias, which has ruined the careers of many clinical investigators,” explains Dr. Fordtran. “He taught his fellows to be good experimentalists.”

Dr. Ingelfinger also thought that physicians in academic departments of medicine would be most successful if they could develop an accurate technique that could be applied to intact human subjects. He thought physician researchers should study normal subjects and patients with the goal of understanding human physiology and ameliorating disease.

Dr. Fordtran’s time in Boston marked the start of his storied GI career, as it was there he developed the use of a nonabsorbable substance to calculate gastrointestinal fluid volume, which allowed for the examination of previously unexplored issues in the physiology of absorption and secretion by the gut.

Despite making his mark on GI medicine in Boston, when he returned to Dallas in 1962 as an instructor in internal medicine at UTSW and Parkland, Dr. Fordtran still says he had a lot to learn about conducting research that is not only accurate, but also meaningful. He credits Don Seldin, MD, Floyd Rector, MD, Robert Johnson, MD, Dan Foster, MD, Norman Kaplan, MD, and Jean Wilson, MD, for that critical education.  

Baylor University Medical Center’s Good Fortune

As his career progressed, Dr. Fordtran began considering a position as chief of medicine as the next step.

“I looked at one job outside the city, but after that, I knew I didn’t want to leave Dallas,” he says. “My family was happy here.”

While Dr. Fordtran’s career had centered on solid science, it was fate or perhaps destiny that he received a call from Dan Polter from just a few miles away. Baylor University Medical Center, part of Baylor Scott & White Health, was seeking to replace Ralph Tompsett, MD, the outgoing chief of medicine. A cardiologist from Yale had accepted the job, but he backed out three months before he was scheduled to move to Baylor University Medical Center.

“It hit me just at the right time when I was looking for a change,” says Dr. Fordtran. “I thought it was good because I would be a chief of medicine but not have nearly as many administrative responsibilities, so I could continue to do research.”

He also liked the idea of being the head of a teaching service in internal medicine. “Everyone was very welcoming,” he says. “They all seemed to want me to be happy here, and I received great support from CEO Boone Powell Jr. and Joel Allison, and the medical staff of our department. From the nurses, I received a certificate as an ‘honorary registered nurse,’ which I cherish.”

A Wonderful Life

Dr. Fordtran – now in his late-80s – continues to be a trusted counselor and key resource for Baylor University Medical Center residents, researchers and medical staff. Despite all the anxiety surrounding healthcare and serious issues facing providers today, he still derives tremendous joy from the many small thrills of his daily work.

“I love to be in clinical conferences trying with others to figure out what’s wrong with a patient,” he says. “I like working at Baylor University Medical Center, and I enjoy writing research papers with the residents and fellows and others on the medical staff.”

But his sense of fulfillment also seems to stem from the gratitude he holds for all who have helped shape his career and the resources he has had at his disposal. Looking back, he says, “The most important thing that made me successful was that I’ve always had a research laboratory. So whenever I got an idea, I could do an experiment to find out if it was a good idea, and then try to make the most of it.”

Among the individuals that have meant so much to him are Carol Byrne, who has been his chief laboratory associate for nearly her entire career. She came with him to Baylor University Medical Center from UTSW in 1979.

Larry Schiller, MD, and Charles Richardson, MD, also ultimately left the group he had formed at UTSW and moved to Baylor University Medical Center. Here, Dr. Fordtran found many new research partners, such as Mike Emmett, MD, Dan Polter, MD, Jack Porter and most recently, Joe Guileyardo, MD. There were many others.

“Things just fell into place for me professionally, and I’ve had a wonderful life,” he says.