Anesthesia Pioneer Has Avon Lake Connection
Dr. Francis Hoeffer McMechan credited Avon Lake lake captain and wife with his international success in furthering anesthesia research.
By Laura Ploenzke
"A man is what he is only from the neck up; from the neck down he's worth only a day's wages." – Dr. Francis Hoeffer McMechan, B.A., M.A., M.D., F.I.C.A
In the mid 1910s, the enduring friendship between a Great Lakes schooner captain from Avon Lake and his wife and a young, ambitious, wheelchair-bound doctor from Cincinnati and his wife helped to profoundly change the course of modern surgical medicine.
Dr. Francis (Frank) Hoeffer McMechan, who was permanently confined to a wheelchair due to his affliction with rheumatoid arthritis that began in his 30s, had already begun to make a name for himself in the field of anesthesia, but was struggling financially when he and his wife, Laurette, visited Captain William Joel Curtis and his wife, Mary Jane, in their spacious home on Lake Road in Avon Lake around 1914.
The couples' connection to each other had come about through Laurette's parents, William and Matilde Van Varseveld, who, for many years, had rented a room from the Curtis couple when they, like many families, came to Avon Lake to spend part or all of their summer. An educated and philanthropic-minded couple, the Curtises immediately took a personal and financial interest in Dr. McMechan and his work. Ultimately, the McMechans resided for more than a decade with the Curtises, the four of them devoted to work during the days and card-playing, reading aloud, and listening to music in the evenings.
Each day, they all eagerly awaited the mail to pore over the medical journals and correspondence that came in from around the world. Working in the Curtis' front parlor at a then century-old cherry wood table, Dr. McMechan relied on this correspondence to help fill the pages of the Quarterly Supplement of Anesthesia and Analgesia, a publication founded in October 1914 as a result of his appeal to Dr. Joseph MacDonald, long-time secretary of the American Medical Editors Association and publisher of the American Journal of Surgery.
"[In] seeking a new outlet for my shut-in limitations, it occurred to me that a journal on anesthesia would be greatly needed, not only to further the organization of the specialty, but more especially to broadcast its literature," Dr. McMechan explained once in an interview.
The Quarterly Supplement was just one of many journals Dr. McMechan edited. Throughout his distinguished career, he also held various positions in national and international societies and organizations, including serving as secretary-general of the International Anesthesia Research Society, and received numerous honors and accreditations. One such honor, a lifetime achievement award in the form of a trophy that was presented to the McMechans in 1937 by the International Anesthesia Research Society, disappeared after Laurette's death in 1970 and was not recovered until October 2011.
Despite his severe physical limitations, which eventually completely paralyzed him, Dr. McMechan traveled extensively with Laurette to places including Cuba, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, and Germany, where he was sought after to give speeches and lectures and meet with the most renowned medical professionals of the time.
In addition to his intellect, insatiable curiosity, and innovation, Dr. McMechan was personable, witty, and endlessly energetic. He also was able to translate into layman's terms complex medical jargon and procedures, making him an invaluable liaison between the medical world and the public. His experience as a general assignment reporter for The Cincinnati Post between 1900 and 1903, working for a city editor who demanded concise, basic writing, honed this skill.
Dr. McMechan was born January 16, 1879, in Cincinnati, OH, the second of three children of James Charles and Mary A. (Hoeffer) McMechan, and the third generation of physicians that included his father and his paternal grandfather. All three men were graduates of Cincinnati's Ohio Medical College, which later became the Medical School of the University of Cincinnati.
As a child, Dr. McMechan often accompanied his father on house calls, riding in their buggy and observing as his father tended to his patients. Later, he assisted in his father's office and occasionally helped administer anesthetics in emergency situations.
In addition to acquiring medical knowledge, Dr. McMechan gained an appreciation for music, drama, and literature from his parents. During his college and medical school years, he funded his education by writing and directing plays. His original plays, which totaled around 30, were produced by amateur companies in Cincinnati and financially benefitted charities and music and drama organizations. He later said of these experiences, "[They] gave me the capacity to dramatize meetings, dinners and international congresses. One must stage them to have them a success."
Dr. McMechan also directed plays at the Schuster School of Acting in Cincinnati, where he met his future wife. Laurette Van Varseveld was an actress at the school, and quickly earned his love and respect, serving as his advisor and acting in his plays. They were married June 5, 1909, in Chicago by his uncle, his mother's brother, Jacobus Francis Xavier Hoeffer. Five years later, they moved to Avon Lake and began their pivotal friendship with Captain and Mrs. Curtis.
Despite assistance and support from the most prominent international medical leaders during his career, Dr. McMechan continuously credited his relationship with Captain and Mrs. Curtis for his achievements. As one chronicler of his life wrote, "[T]his association with the Curtis' was one of the highlights of the doctor's life. At a time when he scarcely knew which way to turn, when it seemed that one obstacle after another was blocking his path to realizing his goal, the Curtis' brought the McMechans real friendship and understanding. . . . The doctor always said that they were more responsible than anyone else for the opportunity given him to conduct his work for anesthesia."
After Captain Curtis' death in March 1925, Dr. and Mrs. McMechan continued to live with Mrs. Curtis. Shortly after a trip to Australia in 1929, his physical condition rapidly deteriorated and he was confined to bed for almost two years. He and Laurette eventually moved to the Westlake Hotel in Rocky River, where he lived the last few years of his life and died on June 29, 1939. Laurette continued his work until her death in 1970. They are both buried in Lakewood Park Cemetery in Rocky River.