Dr. Janet G. Travell
(December 17, 1901 - August 1, 1997)
34 Harmon Avenue
(September, 1944 - September, 1961)
The First Woman to Serve as White House Physician
Pelham has long been home to some amazing physicians who were leaders in their profession – and it still is. Dr. Janet Travell may be among the most famous for her research, novel approach and success in treating myofascial pain. She and her husband, John W.G. (“Jack”) Powell, moved with their daughters, Virginia and Janet, to Pelham from Dr. Travell’s native Manhattan in 1942. They purchased the house at 34 Harmon Avenue (located right in front of the clock tower), a home they called “Castle-Air,” where both their daughters graduated from Pelham Memorial High School. Janet and Jack remained there until they moved to Georgetown in Washington, D.C. in 1961 when Dr. Travell was serving as personal physician to President John F. Kennedy.
Dr Travell held the distinction of being the first woman to serve as personal physician to a sitting U.S. President. She remains the only civilian woman to have ever held the post and the only woman to have had that role for two Presidents, after being asked by President Lyndon B. Johnson to continue as his White House physician until the end of 1964.
Dr. Travell in her office, the White House Dispensary
There was no furniture in the office when she arrived and Jackie Kennedy told her to visit the White House store rooms and take whatever she liked. Among the things she picked was this sofa which she described in her autobiography as: "upholstered in pale green satin with a pattern of gold medallions and stars, [that] I later discovered had stood in the Oval Room on the second floor of the Mansion when Mr. Truman was President."
“I used to wish that I were a boy, but as soon as I discovered how foolish all boys were, and how much wiser and really stronger girls were, I gave up this notion ….”
~ Janet “Bobby” Travell in a letter to her future husband, Jack Powell.
Left: Dr. Travell in White House Pool
From her earliest age, “Bobby” Travell (as her family nick-named her) was a bundle of energy with a passion for the outdoors. Growing up in Manhattan, she and her father would catch worms in the rain in Washington Square to use for fishing bait, shoot pistols at targets in a make-shift shooting range in the basement of their house and play tennis in the backyard. She scaled the cliffs of the Shawangunk Moutains and would jump from a second-story balcony of the Mohonk Mountain House into the lake because, she said, “it was the shortest route from our wing of the big hotel to the swimming area.” During her first year of medical school, she skipped classes for the Dartmouth Winter Carnival and, three times, skied down the thousand-foot, rutted and icy runway and off the Dartmouth ski jump. At the family country house in the Berkshires, she rode horses, chopped trees and gardened. During her courtship with her soon-to-be husband, she explained that she was called “Bobby” because “I used to be a terrible tom-boy,” but added that “to be masculine was the farthest thing from my ambition….” Later in life, the same person would write to her daughter while in Paris with President Kennedy: “Last night I went to the Grand Salle just before eight, in my new yellow short formal that you saw in Paris.”
On the influence of her father in becoming a successful doctor:
“I knew how demanding was the profession of medicine; I had witnessed the tedious hours and hard work that my father gave to his medical practice, but his unfailing enthusiasm for it was contagious. He and I never discussed any special hardships or prejudices that the doctor who was a woman might encounter. I think that those were taken for granted. We also assumed that, whatever the obstacles, … I would surmount them. I had confidence because he had confidence in me.”
Below photo Janet Travell with her father, Willard Travell, M.D. and her daughter, Virginia Powell at 34 Harmon Avenue, 1960
“Don't forget that she was also Mrs. John W. G. Powell and that our father was also active in various associations and groups in Pelham.”
~ Janet Travell Pinci referring to her mother in recent correspondence with the Pelham Town Historian
At left: Jack & Janet Powell on their 25th Wedding Anniversary, June 6, 1954, 34 Harmon Avenue, Pelham
"Jack" and Janet Powell were very much a Pelham fixture, playing golf and tennis at the Pelham Country Club. (Not surprisingly, Janet was twice club champion in women’s tennis.) They avoided the cocktail party circuit, but held dinner parties for 10-12, making it a rule to include people of different professions. “Nor were we laggards at the club dances and dinners in the evening on the outdoor terrace overlooking the tennis courts and illuminated pool,” wrote Dr. Travell in her autobiography. Jack Powell had no trouble keeping up athletically (he was offered contracts to play baseball with the (then) New York Giants, the Chicago White Sox and the Philadelphia Phillies but chose instead to go into banking). As a Pelham resident, he was on the Vestry and chaired the finance committee at the Church of the Redeemer, participated in fundraising for the Pelham Community Chest and the Red Cross and was on the board of the Pelham Men’s Club. Janet joined the Manor Club, served on the board of the Pelham Junior Skating Club and co-chaired the parents’ committee of the “Steffi Nossen Teenage Dance Workshop.”
On Living in Pelham:
“As suburbanites in Pelham, none of us missed New York City because we had not really left New York City. With … only a thirty-three minute train ride, Jack could come home for dinner and bring our teen-agers into town with him that same evening in ample time for me to meet them at the theater.”
~ Janet Travell in Office Hours: Day and Night
At left: 34 Harmon Avenue ("Castle-Air") with Janet and Virginia Powell
Janet & Jack with daughters Virginia & Janet in front of 34 Harmon (late 1940s)
Janet & Virginia Powell at 34 Harmon
Jack Powell with daughter Janet and a cousin in front of Harmon Avenue gates in 1945
Virginia & Janet Powell with "Buppy" on terrace of 34 Harmon (late 1940s)
Virginia in front of 34 Harmon (1948)
Jack Powell in front of living room fireplace at 34 Harmon Avenue
Christmas Dinner at 34 Harmon with friends, Dr. Vincent ("Dee") & Zella du Vigneaud (1949).
Virginia & Janet with "Missy" and "Polly" in front of 34 Harmon (1945)
Virginia & Janet on Harmon Avenue in blizzard of 1948
Janet & cousin in front of 34 Harmon Avenue
Video of Dr. Travell at work in the White House
The "Kennedy Rocker"
JFK was famous for using a rocking chair to help ease his chronic back pain, but few people know that he was introduced to it by Pelham's own Dr. Travell when he was still the junior U.S. Senator from Massachusetts. Besides using it in the Oval Office at the White House, it travelled with him aboard Air Force One.
Dr. Travell at White House Press Conference about President Kennedy's Health
After leaving the White House:
In addition to writing and publishing her autobiography, Dr. Travell co-authored three volumes on the treatment of trigger point pain, “Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction”, known as the Red Bible, for many years the leading best-seller among medical books.
Office Hours: Day & Night
The autobiography of Dr. Janet G. Travell, 1964
More about the Life of Dr. Travell:
A 1964 autobiography by a doctor might not seem to make the top of an interesting reading list, even if written by one who was the first woman to serve as the personal physician to a sitting U.S. President. But Office Hours: Day and Night by former Pelhamite, the late Dr. Janet Travell, goes far beyond her interesting personal experience as President John F. Kennedy’s doctor. Her story spans a life in New York beginning just after the turn of the 19th century, providing first-hand memories of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, an encounter with magician Harry Houdini and some real-life and tragic consequences of prohibition. Engaging, witty and self-deprecating, the author reveals her professional and personal journey as a trailblazing woman in the medical field. And yet she is so much more than that.
At one moment she is dressed in a self-described “silver lace dress, short and straight line to the pale pink chiffon flounce at knee level” dancing the night away on the roof of the Astor Hotel and the next she is responding in an ambulance call, sitting in sawdust on the floor of a seedy restaurant and ordering the help of rowdy bystanders as she sutures a scalp, cut open during a bar-room brawl.
After marrying John William Gordon (“Jack”) Powell (the man she danced with all night at the Astor), she describes in detail, their purchase of a home in Pelham. Their experiences of living in Pelham will sound eerily familiar to any current Pelham resident, despite the passage of almost 80 years. Anyone who has sought a home near the train station will relate to their reticence about buying a home with 35 steps up to the front door – and yet they do, to be able to walk to everything. As a Pelham mom, she knits sweaters for her husband and skating suits for her daughter, she makes costumes for her children for a Colonial School play and she takes shifts in a car pool with other parents.
At the same time, she keeps up a medical career that ultimately led to her specialty in treating myofascial pain by a novel concept of focusing on intramuscular “trigger areas” (discovering that the source of pain was not necessarily where it was felt, but a trigger area from which it emanated). This leads to her introduction to a new patient: the junior Senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy.
Travell’s autobiography is interesting enough to be a page-turner, even without the second half of the book devoted to describing her time as White House doctor for President Kennedy. Given her energy and force of personality, it is no surprise that she is invited to the Kennedy home in Palm Beach (arriving for the first time in the middle of the night under comical circumstances) and the family compound in Hyannis Port. She swims in the ocean with the president, skips rope with Caroline in the halls of the White House, attends to John Jr. when he knocks out a front tooth and travels the world with the President and First Lady, attending diplomatic functions where she meets Nikita Kruschev, Charles de Gaulle and other dignitaries and heads of state. She was on intimate terms with the extended Kennedy family and is with them in her office at the White House after the tragic news is received from Dallas on November 22, 1963.
There are countless JFK biographies, but there is something unique about seeing him through the eyes of his personal physician and something completely surreal to hear about him from a woman who, at one point is attending student performances at Pelham Memorial High School and, a few years later, is in the White House attending to the president and his family.
A copy of Office Hours: Day and Night will be made available in coming weeks at the Pelham Town Library. Reasonably-priced copies are also currently available for purchase on Abebooks.com.
For more insight into the life of Dr. Travell, see the biography by her daughter, Virginia Powell Street, Janet Travell, M.D.: A Biography (Available here for purchase from the family of Dr. Travell)
Credits & Appreciation in the Preparation of this Page:
Thank you to Noreen Naroo-Pucci, current owner of 34 Harmon, whose initial research into the history of her home led to connecting with Janet Travell's family and bringing this notable former Pelhamite to the attention of the Pelham Town Historian.
Deepest thanks to Virginia Powell Street and Janet Powell Pinci, daughters of Janet & Jack Powell, and Janet Street, their granddaughter for going above and beyond in sharing their family photos at 34 Harmon, detailed information on the lives of Janet & jack Powell and help in editing the information included on this web page.