Throwback Thursday: When JFK Appointed the First Female Presidential Physician

Dr. Janet G. Travell was a graduate of Wellesley College.

John F. Kennedy and Dr. Janet Travell / Photo via AP

John F. Kennedy and Dr. Janet Travell / Photo via AP

When former President John F. Kennedy met Dr. Janet G. Travell in 1955, he finally found relief.

After years of suffering from chronic back pain, a referral to Travell proved to be invaluable. She specialized in skeletal muscle pain, and recommended treatments the young senator continually praised. Six years later, Travell’s pain alleviation finesse would help her make history.

On January 26, 1961, about a week after Kennedy was inaugurated, he appointed Travell as his presidential physician. The significance of the event was twofold: it was the first time in decades the military wouldn’t provide medical care to the President and his family, and it was the first time a woman would hold the position of physician to the president.

The first female presidential physician was born in New York City in 1901. She studied at Wellesley College and earned her M.D. at Cornell University. Before becoming Kennedy’s personal doctor, she worked at several hospitals, had a private practice, and served as an associate professor at Cornell University Medical College.

Kennedy first saw Travell after his second invasive back surgery, which did not fully correct the back pain he’d experienced since he was injured in World War II. Her pain-relieving recommendations for the President included a back brace, Novocain, and custom-made orthopedic shoes, but Travell is often remembered for bringing old-fashioned rocking chairs back en vogue.

“She believed that a rocking chair alleviated lower-back tension by keeping the muscles moving, contracting and relaxing,” reads Travell’s obituary. “Throughout his brief Presidency, Kennedy’s oak rocker with a cane seat was a familiar sight to White House photographers and, consequently, the public.”

The sight of Kennedy in his chair spurred a rocking chair renaissance. The public demanded “Kennedy rockers,” and they soon sprang up in living rooms across the country.

After Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Travell served as the presidential physician to Lyndon B. Johnson. She stayed on until 1965, then returned to academia, where she’d remain active for the rest of her life. Travell passed away at the age of 95 in Northampton, Mass.