In Memoriam: John R. Davis, MD

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Pathologist John R. Davis, MD, who left the University of Iowa in 1967 to become one of the first professors to join the brand new University of Arizona College of Medicine, died January 30, 2016, after a brief illness. He was 86.

A specialist in gynecologic pathology, Dr. Davis was highly respected by his colleagues, and by medical students and residents, whom he regarded as “colleagues in evolution,” said Anna Graham, MD, professor emerita of pathology and alumna of the College of Medicine Class of 1974. Dr. Graham learned from Dr. Davis as a medical student, resident and colleague.

“As a medical student, I was very impressed by his fount of knowledge, and also by his appreciation for students,” she recalled. “He would invite us to his house for get-togethers. He had a respect for students, and he sincerely cared about us too. Up until then most of my experience with faculty was ‘they’re the teacher and I’m the student,’ and that was kind of it. I subsequently learned that he continued that philosophy with residents, that we were colleagues in training. He was so beloved by the residents that he won the department award for resident teaching year after year.”

Ronald S. Weinstein, MD, chair of the Department of Pathology from 1990 through 2007, renamed the award the John R. Davis, MD Award for Resident Teaching.

Dr. Davis was regarded by College of Medicine obstetricians and gynecologists as the "go-to" pathologist, Dr. Graham said.

“All of us sent our difficult gynecologic cases to him,” she said.

Kenneth J. Ryan, MD, professor emeritus of immunobiology and former interim dean of the College of Medicine, remembers Dr. Davis as “a man of few words, who communicated a lot with a raised eyebrow and a wry smile."

Dr. Davis was born on July 10, 1929, in Mattoon, Ill. He developed an interest in medicine while serving with the U.S. Air Force from 1951 to 1954, and went on to earn his medical degree from the University of Iowa. He married Martha Jindrich in 1952, and the couple had three daughters. In 1967, when founding College of Medicine Dean Merlin K. “Monte” DuVal, MD, recruited University of Iowa pathologist Jack M. Layton, MD, to be one of the College’s first faculty, Dr. Davis followed him to Tucson.

Mary Doyle, clinical assistant professor with the UA College of Nursing, and her sister, Beth Davis, a histotechnician with Ventana Medical Systems, both described their father as a family man who almost never discussed work at home.

“Our conversations were always about people, and family,” Mary Doyle said. “After we moved to Tucson, we always drove back to Iowa for summer vacations, to see our relatives who still lived there. “He also had a big interest in nature, and exposed us to a lot of different aspects of nature in our world. We had snakes and mice and a fish pond and an ant farm when we were kids. And we always had a dog.”

Beth Davis trained in histology at Pima Community College, then worked in the histopathology laboratory at what was then University Medical Center, from 2006 until 2014. Her father retired in 2008.

“It was the best,” Beth Davis recalled. “It was so great to see that side of his life, and to see how much everyone loved him and respected him, and how humble he was. It was exciting to share what I was doing with him and get his feedback.”

Laura Davis shared her sisters’ interest in science, and one summer as an undergraduate, had the opportunity to work in her father’s lab, cleaning glassware and filing photos of chromosomes. At the UA, she earned a master’s degree in hydrology and water resources, and now is a hydrogeologist with an environmental consulting firm in Tucson.

Martha and John Davis divorced in 1999, but remained friends and continued celebrating holidays and special occasions as a family. While married, they purchased a vacation home in Rocky Point, Mexico.

“What a gift that still is for our family,” Beth Davis said.

She remembers her father as an avid sports fan and lifelong tennis player. His grandchildren played baseball, volleyball, and soccer, and her father “did his best to get to as many games as he could,” she said.

Laura Davis remembers her father’s generosity and sense of humor, and continuous curiosity about nature – which may explain why he once had an ant farm in his office. Asked how she would like her father to be remembered, Mary Doyle said, “His passion was teaching, but he valued family and friends. When a friend had a breast biopsy at the hospital, he checked it and went upstairs and told her it was negative, so she wouldn’t have to wait to find out. That was so like him: warm and caring, and quietly available.”

In addition to his former wife and three daughters, Dr. Davis’s survivors include his four grandchildren – Katie, Annie, Jack and Joe Doyle – as well as other relatives, friends, and his dog Nell.

Said Dr. Weinstein, founding director of the UA-based Arizona Telemedicine Program, “John was a great friend, and a pioneer in our telepathology programs. He was one of our favorite faculty members. His passing is the end of an era for the Department of Pathology." 

Dr. Davis’s death was preceded by the death of Dr. Layton, on July 3, 2015. He was 97.

“They were both highly talented educators of medical students,” Dr. Weinstein said. “They set the stage for the University of Arizona to become a ‘best of breed’ school in the medical education arena.”

Photo caption: Mary Doyle, left, with her father John Davis, and sisters Beth Davis and Laura Davis.