Dr. Bucknam McPeek once walked into a hospital room to find that his patient, because of the particulars of her ailment, was suspended so that she faced downward, unable to see anyone who visited.
Though neither young nor small of frame, Dr. McPeek thought it unkind to converse with a patient when he couldn’t see her face, and she couldn’t see his, so he sat on the floor where “he could look her in the eye and talk with her about her care and what was going to happen,” said his daughter, Alexandra of Chestnut Hill. “She told him he was the only doctor who had done that for her.”
For decades Dr. McPeek, who was known simply as Jack, worked to ease the discomfort of patients through his private anesthesia practice and by helping create and lead the acute pain service at Massachusetts General Hospital. Through it all, though, he was kind in ways that inspired others to emulate his generous presence.
“He was always an impressive man,” said Dr. Emery Brown, a former student of Dr. McPeek who is now the Warren M. Zapol professor of anesthesia at Harvard Medical School. “The thing that comes to mind most of all is that he was always such a gentleman. If you looked up the word gentleman in the dictionary, you would find Jack’s picture. I’m not kidding. He was always so dignified and polished, and he made you want to be that way, too.”
Dr. McPeek, who also taught at Harvard Medical School and advised generations of incoming Harvard freshmen, fell asleep Dec. 26 at his brother’s home in Ewing, N.J., after a family holiday dinner and died of complications from cardiac arrest. He was 80 and lived in Chestnut Hill.
“He was a remarkably positive person,” said Dr. Edward Lowenstein, the Henry Isaiah Dorr distinguished professor of research and teaching in anesthetics and anesthesia at Harvard Medical School.
“One of the extraordinary things about him was that when others had conflicting views, he could get people together and somehow at the end, people were left feeling good, feeling that their concerns had been well taken care of, and leaving with some sort of united satisfactory conclusion,” Lowenstein said. “In my experience, this is a pretty rare quality.”
A physician whose work ranged widely from private practice to teaching to research, Dr. McPeek “was a man of such broad areas of knowledge and interests that he could make just about anything seem fascinating,” Lowenstein said.
Along with co-writing the “MGH Handbook of Pain Management,” Dr. McPeek was coauthor of “Data for Decisions: Information Strategies for Policy Makers,” a book he once noted was used in coursework at three of Harvard’s graduate schools.
“Jack bridged gaps in an important way,” Lowenstein said of Dr. McPeek’s efforts to help statisticians and physicians work hand in hand.
That ability to float effortlessly from one aspect of medicine to another was something Dr. McPeek appreciated about his long career.
“One thing I like about my life is its diversity,” he wrote for the 25th anniversary report of his Harvard class. “For twenty years I have cared for the sick at the Massachusetts General Hospital. I have also taught at Harvard for almost that long. A pleasant aspect is that I work with the youngest and oldest students, from Harvard College freshmen to graduate school and medical students and residents in the Harvard teaching hospitals.”
The oldest of three children, Dr. McPeek was born in Enid, Okla.
His father, W. Miles McPeek, was a federal Agriculture Department statistician whose postings changed so frequently that Dr. McPeek realized as a Harvard senior that it was the first time he had spent four consecutive years at the same school.
The family lived in Washington for a time while he was growing up, and his mother, Helen, was invited to tea one day at the White House. Dr. McPeek liked to tell the story about how Eleanor Roosevelt “picked up a few cookies and tucked them into his jacket pocket and said, ‘Shhh, don’t tell your mother,’ ” his daughter recalled. “He said he would have voted Democratic for years on that alone.”
After graduating from high school in Little Rock, Ark., Dr. McPeek went to Harvard and by his own accounting “never left.”
He received his bachelor’s degree in 1955, graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1959, “and stayed on as a member of the teaching staff,” he wrote for his 10th Harvard class report.
A devoted professor, Dr. McPeek told his daughter he preferred to focus on students who struggled because those “at the top of the class always have plenty of supporters and people to clap them on the back.”
Just as encouraging with his own children, “he told me once that he thought a good education was the only thing he could give me that would never be lost or stolen,” his daughter recalled. “He said it would always help me, could never be taken from me, and would last my entire life.”
Dr. McPeek’s marriage to Cornelia Hurley, with whom he had two children, ended in divorce after 35 years.
An author of more than 130 papers and six books, Dr. McPeek served in a variety of leadership positions during his career, including as director of the acute pain service at MGH. To take his mind off medicine now and then, he sailed off Martha’s Vineyard during summers and rowed on the Charles River.
“The Union Boat Club is just a step away from the Massachusetts General,” he wrote in 1970, and once you have left the dock, it is easy to forget the cares of a busy day.”
In addition to his daughter, Dr. McPeek leaves a son, Douglas; and a brother, W. Miles of Ewing, N.J.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. March 22 in the Church of the Redeemer in Chestnut Hill.
In 2003, he retired from “the active practice of anesthesia at MGH after more than 43 years,” he wrote in 2005, though he continued to teach.
He missed his patients, liked the luxury of an afternoon nap with his cat, and enjoyed his continuing involvement with Harvard, where he had long been involved in alumni affairs.
“I have been either a student or teacher at Harvard since September 1951,” he wrote in 2005. “Clearly some of us are slow learners. I know I have learned substantially more than I have taught. It has been a wonderful experience.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.