Soon after being named the seventh dean of Harvard Business School, John H. McArthur offered what could easily have served as the guiding philosophy of his leadership in academia, in health care, and in life itself.
“We have to stress how human values, like ethics, relate to business decisions,” he told the Globe in November 1979.
Dr. McArthur, who was 85 when he died last Tuesday, changed the way business was conducted at one of the nation’s premier business schools, but his influence extended far beyond the campus.
He was credited with conceiving of and being the driving force behind the 1994 merger of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital and of subsequently helping launch Partners HealthCare, which he served as founding cochairman.
“The health care system in Boston is, in some ways, John’s creation,” said Nitin Nohria, current dean of Harvard Business School.
As unpretentious as a tie left askew, which his typically was, Dr. McArthur left a legacy that could be measured not only by his long list of accomplishments but also by the common touch he brought to reconfiguring Harvard’s business education and to reshaping the region’s health care.
“The magic of John McArthur was that he would spend equal amounts of time with buildings and grounds personnel as he would with visiting heads of international companies. And he didn’t keep score,” said entrepreneur Joe O’Donnell, a former member of the Harvard Corporation who had been mentored by Dr. McArthur.
During Dr. McArthur’s 15-year tenure as dean, the business school’s endowment increased about six-fold, to $600 million, and the annual research and course development budget climbed from $10 million to $50 million.
He spearheaded creation of initiatives designed to promote the teaching of ethics, to encourage good corporate citizenship, and to guide students toward volunteerism and jobs in the nonprofit sector.
Colleagues recalled that he brought a personal touch to all his endeavors, including in realms where deans rarely tread. He might take time to reassure a distraught foreign student that a scholarship could be found to cover a shortfall or appear unbidden in hospital rooms when faculty members or one in their families fell ill.
“In many ways, he had the intrinsic empathy and kindness that doctors and nurses have,” said Dr. Ron M. Walls, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “He thought like a businessman, but he felt like a health care provider. That’s one way to think about him.”
Hailing from western Canada, Dr. McArthur arrived at Harvard Business School as a student and never left. His classroom work attaining a master’s in business administration in 1959 earned him a scholarship to stay for a doctorate, which he received in 1963.
“I felt guilty about having scholarships all the way, so I decided to teach for five years,” he said in the 1979 interview.
He began teaching at the school while still a graduate student, was named dean in late 1979, and retired in 1995 as dean emeritus and George F. Baker professor of administration emeritus.
While Dr. McArthur was dean, the school strengthened its executive education and entrepreneurship offerings, the MBA curriculum underwent a comprehensive review, and the number of endowed professorships increased by about 60 percent. The Harvard Business School Press was launched in 1984, and the Harvard Business School Publishing was incorporated in 1993.
On his watch, the campus in Allston added the Shad Hall fitness center and Class of 1959 Chapel. Most vehicles were prohibited from campus roads, which were transformed into tree- and flower-lined spaces for foot traffic.
In media profiles, he was a magnet for the adjective rumpled. Colleagues and friends who spent time with Dr. McArthur, meanwhile, spoke effusively of his kindness.
“He was a warm, kind, and generous man who made friends easily, and was intensely loyal to them,” Angela Crispi, the school’s executive dean for administration, said in a statement. “It is this quality — above all others — that has endeared him to so many.”
John Hector McArthur was born in 1934 in Vancouver and grew up in suburban Burnaby, a son of Hector McArthur, a government grain inspector, and Elizabeth Whyte, a nurse.
As a youth and young man, Dr. McArthur earned money working in a saw mill part time. He graduated from Burnaby South High School, where he began dating a classmate, Netilia Ewasiuk, who is known as Natty and whom he would marry in 1956. A standout athlete in high school and college, he was recruited to play sports professionally but remained in academia instead.
He graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1957 with a bachelor’s degree in forestry and was accepted at Harvard Business School and the Sloan School at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While visiting Cambridge, he and Natty were unimpressed by MIT’s student housing, so they strolled along the Charles River toward Harvard.
“We walked up and we got to the footbridge, and the sun was going down behind the stadium,” he recalled in a 1993 Globe interview. “The business school was between the sunset and the river, and it was beautiful, and we decided sitting on the footbridge to go to Harvard instead of MIT.”
The couple often traveled for pleasure and for his work, and Natty attended Boston University and the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. They chose to keep living in their Wayland home, rather than take up residence in the business school’s Dean’s House, and in recent years they lived in Weston.
Along with serving as dean until 1995, and as cochairman of Partners until 1996, Dr. McArthur was on numerous boards. In retirement, he worked with his former business school classmate James Wolfensohn,, then president of the World Bank, on matters related to reorganizing the institution.
Dr. McArthur’s many honors included receiving the Alumni Achievement Award from Harvard Business School and the Harvard Medal from the university. He was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2013.
McArthur Hall was dedicated in his name at the business school, and after he retired, a group of business school alumni raised funds to create the John and Natty McArthur university professorship. Canadian alumni established a fellowship to assist those from Dr. McArthur’s home county to attend Harvard Business School.
Brigham and Women’s established the John H. McArthur fellowships in medicine and management.
Such a list of honors, colleagues said, still couldn’t do justice to the one-on-one impact he had with countless students, professors, and administrators.
“He could cut through his role and connect with you as a person,” Nohria said. “More than all the things he has done for the school, I think everybody would say he also did something for them personally.”
In addition to his wife, Natty, Dr. McArthur leaves their two daughters, Susan Radovsky and Jocelyn Swisher; his brother, brother, Kenneth; and four grandchildren.
The family will hold a funeral and burial, and a public memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Oct. 30 in Memorial Church in Harvard Yard.
In a career packed with meetings, Dr. McArthur would often listen to others thrash through ideas as he focused on wringing order from the tumult. “Then he’d begin to speak and this incredible brilliance would come through,” Walls said.
Given that Dr. McArthur could mine clarity from chaos with just a few words, no one was surprised that, when stepping down as dean, he wrote a letter to accompany the announcement and explained his decision.
Dr. McArthur wrote that from the beginning, he had planned to retire when his duties as dean were finished.
“My work,” he wrote, “is done.”