Written by: Charles Dean Kurth, MD, FAAP; Robert Berg, MD; Wynne Morrison, MD; Vinay Nadkarni, MD; Andrew Costarino, MD; Todd Kilbaugh, MD
It is with sadness and a multitude of fond memories that we inform you that Dr. John J. “Jack” Downes, died peacefully at the age of 91, on Friday December 17, 2021. Jack served as Anesthesiologist-in-Chief at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (1972-1996). He was a trailblazing giant in the fields of Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine for more than half a century: a visionary pioneer, a master clinician, a rigorous educator, an inspirational leader, and a true gentleman. We mourn his death while we also appreciate and celebrate our good fortune to know Jack as friend, colleague and mentor over the last 60 years.
Jack came to the University of Pennsylvania for his residency training in anesthesiology in 1959 and was subsequently recruited to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in 1963. He developed a multidisciplinary approach to caring for seriously ill hospitalized children, whether following surgery or with life-threatening medical illnesses. His early defining moment was in January 1967, when he inaugurated The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s pediatric intensive care unit–the first of its kind in North America. He was instrumental in fostering early training programs and research programs in his field. He and his colleagues inspired and trained multiple generations of pediatric anesthesiologists and intensivists and set a standard of care and professionalism that will endure far into the future. Jack was a tireless advocate for improving healthcare for children, and his persistent efforts led the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to fund a pioneering home care program for the care of technology dependent children in the 1970’s. In what became his trademark as a leader, he often reminisced that ‘I held on (sometimes by my fingernails) until others fell away, even if it sometimes took several years!’ He was always a passionate advocate for the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, an institution that shares his dedication to advancing state-of-the-art clinical care, cutting edge discovery and rigorous interdisciplinary training to optimize outcomes for ill and injured children.
Jack will always be remembered for his utter devotion to his patients. He worked hard to make sure that every child had access to the best care possible, no matter what their background, disability, or ability to pay. He approached medicine as a moral calling. An avid student of the history of medicine, he navigated an era of rapid change in healthcare and an explosion of technology with the patient always at the center. Even following his retirement, he was a frequent visitor to Pediatrics and Anesthesiology Grand Rounds. His learned presentations on the history of Pediatric Anesthesiology and Pediatric Critical Care Medicine were a special treasure for trainees and faculty alike. He taught us the value of strategic vision, dedication and critically reflecting on our practice to continuously learn.
Those who were lucky enough to work with him, or just to meet him, will always remember his genuine curiosity, sincere humanity, keen insight and steadfast devotion to patients, colleagues, and his family. We are privileged to remember the beautiful moments we experienced with him, and how those moments will continue to influence us and make us better healthcare providers and better people.