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Facts About Dr. Kelsey

Few people have accomplished as much as Dr. Mavis P. Kelsey, who changed how medical care was delivered to Texans through his small Texas Medical Center office that would later become the Kelsey-Seybold Clinic. Here’s a compilation of fascinating and little known facts about our founder, a legend in medicine.

Named After a Family Hero

Mavis Parrott Kelsey, Sr., MD, was born in Deport, Texas, on October 7, 1912, to John Roger and Bonita Kelsey, followed by sisters Mary Virginia (1914) and Elizabeth Lillian (1916), and brother John Roger Jr. (1922). He was named after his mother’s girlfriend and college roommate, Mavis Graham, who saved his mother’s life in college when her nightgown caught fire. Mavis grabbed a blanket, throwing it around Bonita and forcing her to the floor to smother the fire. When Bonita’s mother learned of this, she said that Bonita’s firstborn child should be named Mavis.

Inspired to Be an Aggie

When it came time to go to college, Dr. Kelsey’s family wanted him to go to The University of Texas. They even had him registered there and got him a room in the dormitory. But there was a boy in town who attended Texas A&M and returned home wearing the A&M uniform, which impressed Dr. Kelsey. From that day on, he wanted to go to A&M.

Forged Crucial Friendships at Mayo Clinic

The most important Texas friends Mavis and his wife Mary made while at the Mayo Clinic were Bill and Frances Seybold, also native Texans. Dr. Kelsey and Dr. Seybold were interested in the flora of Minnesota, plants they had never seen in Texas. Eventually, of course, the two doctors would be founding members of Kelsey-Seybold Clinic.

Dr. Kelsey also became close friends with another future partner, Dr. William V. Leary. Dr. Leary passed the American Board of Internal Medicine exam and became a board-certified internist while on duty in World War II, even before completing his fellowship. He was the only person Dr. Kelsey ever knew to become board certified in a specialty before completing residency training.

Had a Heart-to-Heart with Famous Surgeons

When Dr. Michael DeBakey, a pioneer in modern cardiac medicine, started practicing in Houston, he and Dr. Kelsey became good friends and referred patients to each other. Dr. Kelsey also befriended Dr. Denton Cooley, who came to Houston to practice as an associate of Dr. DeBakey. Soon after Dr. Kelsey came to Houston, Dr. Denton Cooley came to town to enter practice as an associate of Dr. DeBakey. Dr. Cooley’s mother was one of Dr. Kelsey’s patients.

Lived in a Different Houston in 1949

When Dr. Kelsey started what would become Kelsey-Seybold Clinic in 1949, Houston had a population of 900,000 people. There was a one-room country schoolhouse at Westheimer and Post Oak where Neiman-Marcus is today, and land near The Galleria was only $1,000 an acre. The Rice Hotel was the social and commercial center of Houston. The Lamar Hotel was the most distinguished address. The Gulf and Mellie Espersen Buildings were the tallest in town. The only fast food chains in Houston were The Pig Stand and Kentucky Fried Chicken. There were no pizza places and very few restaurants. Most people made their meals at home.

Treated Memorable Patients

One patient Dr. Kelsey remembered well was the “Purple Lady.” She was a very wealthy elderly woman who adored purple so much her hair was purple (definitely not a trend at the time), as well as her nails, clothing, and Cadillac.

There many famous patients at the clinic, including nobility from the oil-rich countries of Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, the Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. The clinic had the largest Latin American practice in the country in the mid-1960s. The only competitors who came close were the Oschner Clinic and Mayo Clinic. As many as a thousand patients per month came from Mexico. Flight attendants called the Sunday night Pam Am flight from Mexico City to Houston “The Kelsey-Seybold Special.”

Several movie stars were also patients. The first one Dr. Kelsey cared for was Roy Rogers. Others were senators, congressmen, governors, and judges. There were industry leaders and socialites. Many important Texas citizens were regular patients. It became fashionable for the wealthy and famous to undergo a thorough annual exam at Kelsey-Seybold. Among the many patients Dr. Kelsey admired and made friends with were Governor William P. Hobby, Ernie Cockrell, Congressman and Mrs. Albert Thomas, Senator Lloyd Bentsen, and Governor John Connally.

Practiced During Life-Changing Medical Advancements

During the 50 years that Dr. Kelsey practiced medicine (1936 to 1986), medical knowledge advanced exponentially in many ways. He was practicing when penicillin, streptomycin, and aureomycin, the new antibiotics, became readily available. Before their advent, 50% of all deaths were from infections such as pneumonia, peritonitis, septicemia, tuberculosis, and syphilis.

As Dr. Kelsey’s practice expanded, he and his partners had many patients with hypertension, or high blood pressure, a disease responsible for many deaths through heart attacks and strokes. No effective treatment had been devised until the 1950s when drugs were developed, which could directly lower blood pressure.

In 1955, the polio vaccine was developed by Dr. Jonas Salk. There was a nationwide rush to vaccinate everyone, especially children. The Harris County Medical Society undertook this task with Dr. E.L. Goar in charge. Houston was among the first mass test centers to determine the effectiveness of the oral vaccine. The incidence of polio fell to almost zero. The introduction of a successful polio vaccine was one of the greatest medical achievements of the 20th century.

Many other advances in medicine occurred in the 1950s. Tuberculosis was coming under control as a result of streptomycin. Infirmaries for treating tuberculosis were closing down.

Vascular surgery really took off on October 12, 1954, when Drs. Debakey, Cooley, and Creech performed an operation that was telecast nationwide. They replaced a diseased aorta with a section of preserved aorta from another person. Following this landmark surgery, artificial arteries were replacing diseased ones all over the body. The heart bypass pump was developed, making it possible to continue the circulation of blood while a diseased or malformed heart was being surgically repaired. Organ transplants got underway, slowly, but were hampered by the body’s rejection of transplanted tissue. Also, the specialty of oncology was evolving. Memorial Hospital in New York City, Roswell Park in Buffalo, New York, and MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston were the first cancer hospitals in America.

Another important advancement in medicine, developed mainly in Houston, was the mammogram for detecting breast cancer. The original research was done in 1956 at St. Joseph’s Hospital and MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Considered the ‘Father of Endocrinology’

Dr. Kelsey began working part time at MD Anderson Cancer Center in 1949, specializing in thyroid disease. During his 20 years at the institution, he developed a clinical isotope program, established an endocrine clinic, and worked on constructing a Geiger counter to determine thyroid uptake of radioiodine. Dr. Kelsey was the first Houston physician to hold a license from the Atomic Energy Commission to administer radioisotopes to humans and he gave the first dose of radioiodine to a patient in Houston in 1949.

Loved Genealogy and Art

Dr. Kelsey and his wife Mary spent the equivalent of several full-time years doing genealogy as a hobby. They also had a love for collecting art and Texas historical memorabilia. Portions of their extensive collection can be viewed in more than 20 museums and the Texas A&M University library.

For example, the Mavis and Mary Kelsey Collection of Winslow Homer Prints is housed in the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Dr. Kelsey wrote the catalog for this collection, named “Winslow Homer Graphics,” which is an authoritative reference work used by Homer scholars nationwide.

In 1979, the Kelseys donated their collection of art and Americana to the Special Collections of the Sterling Evans Library at Texas A&M University. On April 13, 1983, the Kelseys received a Philanthropic Award for their gifts to A&M at an annual meeting of the Texas Library Association in San Antonio.

Was an Accomplished Writer

Dr. Kelsey wrote more than a dozen books on art, history, genealogy, and travel. His books include “The Courthouses of Texas” and “Twentieth-Century Doctor.”

Sources: “Twentieth-Century Doctor,” by Mavis P. Kelsey, Sr., “Doctoring in Houston,” by Mavis Parrott Kelsey, Sr., and “Kelsey-Seybold Clinic: A Legacy of Excellence in Health Care,” by William Henry Kellar and Vaishali J. Patel.

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