After serving two years in the U.S. Navy, Dr. John M. Flexner earned an A.B. from Yale University and an M.D. from Johns Hopkins University. He completed his internship and residency at Vanderbilt and Yale and his fellowship training in hematology at Vanderbilt. He went on to work as a professor of hematology at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine from 1959 to 2011 and was named professor emeritus prior to his death in 2011 at the age of 85. As an educator, rounding with “Flex” was considered one of a student’s greatest learning experiences.
Alongside Dr. David Barton, a fellow 2019 Tennessee Health Care Hall of Fame inductee, Dr. Flexner changed the process of death for Middle Tennesseans and beyond by founding Alive Hospice in 1975, the first hospice care facility in the Southeast. Dr. Flexner considered this his greatest accomplishment and served as Alive’s board president from 1981 to 1983. Because of this work, thousands of terminally ill people have encountered a remarkably different end of life—comfortable, peaceful and meaningful. Drs. Flexner and Barton were among the earliest advocates of hospice care, and their work played a significant role in its growth and development as a medical specialty, nationally.
Early in his career, Dr. Flexner became interested in pain management, which later led to his work within navigating end of life care. He was one of the first to implement pain pumps into his practice and advocate for their use. He, alongside Dr. Barton, taught the Death, Dying and Bereavement course at Vanderbilt Medical School for many years and was a frequent guest lecturer. He also wrote several papers on T-Cell lymphomas and contributed to his collaborator, Dr. Robert Collins’, seminal work. Additionally, he was elected as an American Cancer Society Professor of Oncology in 1981, one of only 17 in the country.
Throughout his extensive career, Dr. Flexner treated all patients as if they were members of his family, always interjecting a joke or funny story throughout their interactions. He was known to be honest and candid about the seriousness of his patient’s illness and life expectancy. Most importantly, he held steadfast to Hippocrates’ decree: “Cure sometimes, treat often and comfort always.” Dr. Felxner’s family includes four children, eleven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
A decorated practitioner, lifelong educator and health care pioneer, Dr. John Flexner is a 2019 inductee of the Tennessee Health Care Hall of Fame.