Dr. George Richardson, 89; surgeon, teacher, poet

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / July 15, 2011

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So exemplary was his bedside manner that for years Dr. George Richardson taught medical students at Massachusetts General Hospital the art of doctor-patient interaction.

“He would have students follow him, and he would speak to a patient, and students would learn by observing him,’’ said Dr. Isaac Schiff, chief of the Vincent Obstetrics and Gynecology Service at Mass. General.

“He treated every patient with dignity and compassion and unbelievable sensitivity,’’ Schiff said. “It was just remarkable to watch him with his patients, how dedicated he was to them, how sensitive he was to their needs.’’

As a surgeon, Dr. Richardson was somewhat unusual in relating to patients with the kind of empathy and intimacy that fit more readily into the portfolios of primary care physicians.

“He sort of broke the mold,’’ said his son Jonathan of Brookline. “My father always had a very personal relationship with his patients. His view of medicine and treating patients was all about the whole patient.

“He really cared about people, their emotional well-being, as well as their medical well-being.’’

Dr. Richardson, who also conducted research into gynecologic cancers and in later years wrote so much verse that at times he might have preferred the title poet, died of cancer July 1 in his Nahant home. He was 89.

Looking beyond surgery to see a patient as more than just a diagnosis on a clipboard was second nature for Dr. Richardson, who insisted that his own life transcend vocation.

As a pre-med student at Harvard, he studied Latin, Greek, French, and German. He played piano and was adept at sight-reading music.

His poetry evolved from a lasting love of books.

“He memorized passages of literature that he could recite up to his dying days,’’ his son said.

In the early 1960s, Dr. Richardson was president of the annual Boston Arts Festival, which drew crowds to the Public Garden.

Thirty years later, he noted in the annual report of his Harvard class that he and his wife “put in a lot of flying hours into ballroom dance lessons and competitions.’’

“He was a true renaissance man,’’ Schiff said. “He knew the arts; he knew the humanities; he knew medicine; he knew science; he knew how to speak to people.

“Being in his presence and listening to him talk about anything was just a joy,’’ he said. “It was like being around a symphony, because he had so many aspects to him. You wouldn’t say one instrument; it was multiple instruments. I’ve never met anybody like him and probably never will.’’

The youngest of three brothers, George Shattuck Richardson was born into a storied family of physicians, a fact that never strayed far from his thoughts.

“My present office is only 100 yards or so from where I was born,’’ he wrote in 1968 for his 25th Harvard class report, “and my father, both grandfathers, a great-, and a great-great-grandfather were chiefs of surgery or medicine and professors in the same location.’’

Even among brothers, there were significant accomplishments. The oldest, Dr. Edward Peirson Richardson Jr., was a renowned neuropathologist. Elliot L. Richardson, the middle brother, was elected lieutenant governor and attorney general in Massachusetts, and his federal posts included four Cabinet appointments. As US attorney general, he became famous for resigning rather than following President Nixon’s order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox.

“He walked with Cabinet secretaries, he knew governors, and, at the same time, there was this unbelievable humility,’’ Schiff said of Dr. George Richardson. “He would interact with people at all ranks of life, and he made everybody feel good about themselves.’’

Raised in Brookline, Dr. Richardson was a few days old when his mother died of complications of childbirth, and he was still a child when his father suffered a debilitating stroke. Growing up with those events as a backdrop forged a close bond among the brothers that was still apparent decades later when the three spent time together or their families vacationed at a summer house in Eastham.

Dr. Richardson graduated from Milton Academy, from Harvard College in 1943, and from Harvard Medical School in 1946. He served two years in the US Army, including a stint in Japan during the US occupation after World War II.

He married Rebekah Ketchum in 1958 and was touched by the politics of the era.

“I marched with Martin Luther King into Montgomery, and I’d do it again,’’ he wrote in his 25th class report. “If you want to do something today, however, you can’t accomplish it by protest marches. . . . One must want the solution more than the headlines.’’

After his military service, Dr. Richardson began more than 50 years of work at Mass. General as a gynecologic surgeon. His research focused on ovarian and endometrial cancer, and he was acting chief of the Vincent Obstetrics and Gynecology Service before Schiff arrived.

Work, however, did not define Dr. Richardson, who wrote for his class report in 1963 that “home and family are my real joy.’’ The pleasure of family life, he wrote 40 years later, is “all so wonderful as it goes on and feels as if it would go on forever.’’

With his love of literature and writing, he edited book reviews at the New England Journal of Medicine and chaired Mass. General’s Treadwell Library committee. In retirement, he was elected a trustee of the Nahant Public Library.

“I’d like to write some poetry, too, having been flattered . . . by winning a small poetry contest this spring,’’ he wrote in 1993 for his 50th class report. Last year, he published a volume, “Dance with Me.’’

“He really had a very deft touch as a poet,’’ said the Rev. Stephen Kendrick, senior minister of First Church in Boston, a Unitarian Universalist parish where Dr. Richardson and his wife had been active members. “He wrote a poem about faith that was very powerful, and he wrote several poems about being a doctor. We rarely get to know how doctors feel and think. With his poems he gave us insight into people who have our lives in their hands.’’

In addition to his wife and son, Dr. Richardson leaves two other sons, William of Metairie, La., and Frederick of Brookline; and three grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 10:30 a.m. tomorrow in the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lynn in Swampscott.

“He was very witty, very bright, probably one of the nicest conversationalists I’ve ever met,’’ Kendrick said. “He was effortlessly brilliant, but never in an intimidating way.

“He could speak to the humblest person in the church and make them feel wonderful. And the most erudite person would always be a step behind him, he was that brilliant.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at