Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File
Dr. John T. Harrington was introduced early to physicians, to hospitals, and to a caring profession that would become his life’s calling.
He was diagnosed with rheumatic fever “at the age of 8, just before penicillin became available,” he wrote in a 1993 essay for the New England Journal of Medicine. Though some memories remained faint, he recalled being “hospitalized alone in a 10-bed ward. The code of my culture said you don’t complain about illness — you simply do what is necessary. I did what was necessary.”
The passage is from an essay he called “My Three Valves.” The title refers to the heart valve he was born with and the two artificial valves that replaced it — the first when he was 47, the second eight years later. Agreeing to two heart surgeries — doing what was necessary — prolonged a life that allowed him to treat patients for decades and to train generations of doctors to follow his lead into nephrology and specialize in kidney illnesses.
“I’ve always been a lucky guy (for you youngsters reading this, that phrase is adapted from Lou Gehrig),” he quipped in the essay.
Dr. Harrington, who was dean emeritus of the Tufts University School of Medicine, died Oct. 31 in the Briarwood Rehabilitation & Healthcare Center in Needham. He was 80 and had lived for many years in West Roxbury.
“John was a deeply admired teacher and mentor,” Dr. Harris A. Berman, dean of the medical school, wrote in an e-mail to the Tufts community.
Appointed a professor of medicine in 1979, Dr. Harrington won teaching awards 10 times, Tufts said in announcing his death. During his years with the school, he developed the hemodialysis, peritoneal dialysis, and renal transplant programs at Tufts-New England Medical Center and had been director of the hemodialysis unit and administrative director of the intensive care unit. While he was dean, the medical school constructed its first new research facility, the Jaharis Family Center for Biomedical and Nutrition Sciences.
“He tirelessly pursued the building of a world-class research facility,” Sol Gittleman, a university professor and former provost at Tufts, said in a statement. “He was the right dean of the medical school at the right time, when the school needed a steady hand. He was also a terrific clinical doctor. He was a doctor’s doctor — doctors went to him!”
For many of Dr. Harrington’s colleagues, though, he was more than the sum of his resume listings.
“If I have any regret with respect to our 50-year personal and professional relationship, it is that I have failed to tell you earlier how much you have meant to me,” Dr. Jerome P. Kassirer, a distinguished professor at the medical school, wrote in a letter when Dr. Harrington’s health began to fail.
The two had been friends and colleagues since their time training together decades ago in North Carolina. “From the first time we met in the elevator lobby at Chapel Hill to our close collaboration as budding nephrologists to just weeks ago, you have been a beacon of dignity, honesty, hard work, cheerfulness, unfailing support, and true, binding friendship,” wrote Kassirer, who also is editor-in-chief emeritus of the New England Journal of Medicine.
Dr. Harrington was born and grew up in Fall River, a son of John J. Harrington, an English teacher at B.M.C. Durfee High School, and the former Elizabeth C. Tolan, an elementary school teacher.
When he was hospitalized as a boy, his parents weren’t allowed into the room, “so they stood outside and waved,” said Dr. Harrington’s wife, Trudy. “What a brave boy to wave at his parents like that.”
He graduated from Durfee High, noting in “My Three Valves” that because of the bout with rheumatic fever “I wasn’t allowed to play sports (not a great loss to my high school team, since I couldn’t hit curveballs anyway).”
In 1958, he graduated from the College of the Holy Cross. While studying there, he began dating Gertrude Hargraves, whom he married in 1960. “He was like somebody I had never met in my life. He was so smart and so good,” she said. “And he read everything — he didn’t just read medicine.”
After Holy Cross, he graduated from the Yale School of Medicine in 1962 and did his internship and residency at North Carolina Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill. Dr. Harrington returned to Boston for a research fellowship at what was then New England Medical Center, and within a few years he was teaching at Boston University School of Medicine. He joined the Tufts School of Medicine faculty in 1971.
He was chief of general medicine at New England Medical Center from 1981 until 1986, when he became chairman of medicine at Newton-Wellesley Hospital. Dr. Harrington returned to Tufts School of Medicine in 1994 as dean for academic affairs. He served as the medical school’s interim dean in 1995 was appointed to the position the following year. He retired in 2002.
Dr. Harrington, who specialized in the acid-base area of kidney treatment, formerly was on the editorial board of the New England Journal of Medicine and had edited the Nephrology Forum in Kidney International, the journal of the International Society of Nephrology.
To honor him on his 70th birthday, Tufts Medical Center initiated the Dr. John T. Harrington Endowed Fund, which supports continuing medical education of physicians who care for patients with kidney diseases.
“He always considered himself a regular guy,” his wife said. “And I used to say to him, ‘You’re not a regular guy. You were first in your high school and top of the class at Yale Medical School,’ but he still said, ‘I’m just a regular guy.’ ”
A service has been held for Dr. Harrington, who in addition to his wife leaves three daughters, Trudy Harrington Becker of Blacksburg, Va., Kathleen Harrington Clark of Houston, and Ann Harrington Murphy of Westwood; four sons, Daniel and Tim, both of West Roxbury; John of Wellesley, and Mark of Houston; two brothers, Edward F. Harrington of Portsmouth, R.I., a retired US District Court judge, and Dr. Daniel P. Harrington of Fall River; and 21 grandchildren.
“His professional life was enormous, and the things that he accomplished were extraordinary, but he was much, much more than that,” Dr. Harrington’s son Dan said. “He just reveled in his family.”
Dr. Harrington and his wife spent as much time as possible at their vacation home in Portsmouth, R.I., where he often sailed a boat he called the Carpe Diem — the Latin aphorism from the ancient Roman poet Horace that is commonly translated as “seize the day.”
“He was a constant optimist. I never saw the man tired. He was always upbeat and ready to go,” Dan said, adding that long before carpe diem “became a catch phrase, that was how he conducted his life. Every moment, every day was a chance to do something, and if he was with his family, it was a chance to do something fun.”
In his letter to Dr. Harrington, Kassirer wrote: “In a world where dignity and truth are fraying, you set the standard. You have a permanent place in my small contingent of heroes.”
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