July 01, 2014
4 min read

Pioneer: John A. Feagin Jr., MD

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In this month’s column, we feature John A. Feagin Jr., MD, an international leader and pioneer in sports medicine and knee surgery. Dr. Feagin is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and received his medical degree from Duke University. Among his numerous accomplishments and contributions to field of orthopedics are serving as a president and founding member of the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine as well as co-founder of the society’s Travelling Fellowship Program.

John M. Tokish, MD
Department of the Air Force
Honolulu, Hawaii

John M. Tokish, MD: As a West Point cadet, choosing medicine was certainly an uncommon path. Can you relate how and why you made the decision to go toward medicine?


John A. Feagin Jr.

John A. Feagin Jr., MD: My father was a career Air Force pilot of World War II vintage. I had flown with him in several “war birds” and I was hooked on flying and committed to becoming a pilot. West Point was the way to go, as there was no U.S. Air Force Academy at the time. So the only problem was that I had to be in the upper third of my class to go into the Air Force. This proved to be a good stimulus for me. I hung in there and then in my last year at West Point, I failed the Air Force eye exam.

I had no thoughts of medicine as a career at that time — only the reality of the real Army. I chose the 82nd Airborne Division at Ft. Bragg and the life of a Second Lieutenant in the Artillery for 2 years with frequent, exciting and challenging deployments. It was fun at 21 years old, but not a lifetime career for me. I awoke one morning at dawn in my sleeping bag on a deployment and “saw the light.” I wanted to go to medical school and hopefully be a surgeon. Is that related to flying? I think so.

Convincing the Army to let us go to medical school before our commitment was up was a challenge. However, we did it and Duke University Medical School — just up the road from Ft. Bragg — was a natural choice. Wilburt C. Davison, MD, then the Dean of Duke University School of Medicine, admitted me on the strength of my service record and here I am today.

Is it serendipity or faith-based? I have always believed the latter.

Tokish: You have been a mentor to a generation of orthopedic surgeons. Can you speak about your own mentors, one military and one civilian, and what they instilled in you?

Feagin: It is hard to name just one mentor, as you need different mentors at different times of your career. I consider Davison, J. Leonard Goldner, MD, then later Frank H. Bassett III, MD, William E. Garrett Jr., MD, PhD, and Anthony V. Seaber as my civilian mentors. This is in addition to Sir John Charnley. They all “ruled” with ethics and integrity.

I have had many military mentors through the years. Col. Lloyd Taylor and Col E.A. Brav mentored me in my early residency years. Col. Parvin and Col. Abbott were mentors at West Point, and Col. Tony Ballard and Gus White were mentors in Vietnam. Col. Sterling Mutz, who was chief at Letterman, nurtured me as assistant chief. It has been a great ride, and I wish I could thank them all and express my appreciation for their guidance and mid-course corrections.


Tokish: From Vietnam to military medicine to private practice in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and to the academic halls of Duke University, perhaps no one has practiced orthopedics with such a broad perspective. Which practice did you find most fun? Which was the most rewarding and why?

Feagin: My breadth of practice and opportunities has been peripatetic, but I was always seeking the “high ground” in patient care and service opportunities. I treasure the most the privilege of military medicine and caring for the soldier. Second to caring for the soldier was the caring for the cowboy in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Third, was the joy of the camaraderie of the staff at Duke University and the leadership of James R. Urbaniak, MD. Finally, was the fun and experience of volunteerism — the Leprosarium in Vietnam, AO fracture work in Kazakhstan, the Winter Olympics and the U.S. Ski Team, Tenwek in Kenya and arthroscopy in Cuba. Making a difference wherever you are is what makes the difference.

Tokish: Of all your professional accomplishments, what contribution are you most proud of and why?

Feagin: I am most proud of the creation of the Traveling Fellowship Program, which could not have been accomplished without the friendship of Ejnar Erickson, MD, from Sweden and Werner Mueller, MD, from Switzerland, as well as our respective organizations – the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine and European Society of Sports Traumatology, Knee Surgery and Arthroscopy. This united the sports medicine world in many ways and as Nelson Mandela said, “Sports can unite the people.”

Tokish: What do you think the future holds for sports medicine? What one piece of advice do you wish you had known as you came out of residency that you might pass on to a young graduate today?

Feagin: Initially, I vastly underestimated the potential of the future of sports medicine. Yet, even now, we are the tip of the iceberg. Technologically “the best is yet to come” in the field of limited invasive surgery, robotics and regenerative medicine. That coupled with our worldwide membership, scientific organizations, leadership and universal language guarantee a progressive and positive experience for patients and physicians alike.

My advice to young graduates who follow is to seek the “high road” every day in every way, contribute to your team each day; when you become team leader, be a good shepherd; the Golden Rule will always win out and as Coach K would say before a big game, “Live in the moment.”

  • John A. Feagin Jr., MD, is professor emeritus at Duke University School of Medicine, Duke Sports Medicine Center, in Durham, N.C.
    Disclosure: Feagin has no relevant financial disclosures.