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Endowed chair named for
John Mahaffey had his heart set on medicine, but he wanted to fight for
his country. Shortly after the young Lancaster native attended an
accelerated pre-med program at the University of South Carolina (USC)
in 1944, he entered the Navy on his birthday, June 3.
It was World War II, and, “a lot of the boys went straight from high
school into service,” said Mahaffey, M.D., sitting with his wife,
Faustina, at their home on the Ashley River, recalling the stop-and-go
life that preceded his historic career at MUSC. “A lot of my friends
were killed in the war.”
Mahaffey served in the hospital corps and a dispensary, and was en
route from San Francisco to Okinawa when the atom bomb was dropped on
Hiroshima in 1946.
Mahaffey spent three months on Okinawa, an area populated by empty
tents that would have been full of soldiers had the war in the Pacific
not been stopped.
“We had a hurricane, and we lived in tents,” Mahaffey said, “Those
natives knew how to survive hurricanes (they call them typhoons), by
living in huts on the side of the hill.”
While he may have avoided hand-to-hand combat, Mahaffey soon would
fight his own battle for years to come.
When Mahaffey discharged in Charleston in 1946, an X-ray detected
inactive tuberculosis (TB), to which he was likely exposed while on
Okinawa where the disease was endemic.
At the time, there was no therapy, and feeling fine, Mahaffey returned
to USC to complete the pre-med program. About two years later, he
graduated from USC and went to the medical college in Charleston.
“At the end of my freshman year in 1949, I got a coughing spasm,”
Mahaffey said. “I remember taking exams at Easter and I had lost 20
Feeling weak and unable to focus on his exams, he saw anatomy
professor, Cy O’Driscoll, M.D.
“He tried to lift my spirits,” Mahaffey said with a laugh. I used to
cough up blood, and he’d say, “Oh, people cough up blood all the time.
Now go back and finish your exams.’ He was a good man, a good friend,
and a good teacher.”
Dr. John Mahaffey
and wife, Faustina.
Mahaffey had a classmate, Shorty Johnson from Orangeburg, who
conducted a test that revealed active TB. Mahaffey was admitted at
Pinehaven TB Sanitarium in North Charleston, a rather antiquated place
surrounded by groves of pine trees.
“They had open screen porches,” recalled Faustina, a retired nurse.
“They had flaps that would come down. It was so rustic; so bizarre to
tell about it now. They did not administer antibiotics. They used pine
cleanser on the floors, which were wide and wooden.”
Mahaffey stayed at Pinehaven for three months, where doctors performed
pneumathorax, or collapsing the affected lung, a therapy used then to
help the lung heal.
“It didn’t affect my breathing significantly,” Mahaffey said. “This
went on for five years, and I went to medical school with a collapsed
lung.” In 1950, a year after he underwent peumathorax, a medical
treatment using the antibiotic streptomycin, was developed to treat TB
infection. But it wasn’t until 1965 that Mahaffey would receive
pharmaceutical therapy, isonizid, which he received for a year.
When Mahaffey returned to medical school in 1951, he took refresher
courses, including those taught by Melvin Knisely, Ph.D., chairman of
the anatomy department.
Mahaffey studied for six months in Knisely’s lab, which was
investigating TB. While Mahaffey was on summer break in Lancaster,
Knisely got word that his TB study would be fully funded. But Mahaffey
was finished with lab research.
“Dr. Knisely wasn’t pleased,” Mahaffey said. “The grant was approved
100 percent, and he asked me, ‘Are you coming back?’ But I wanted to
finish medical school.”
Later on, after Mahaffey had earned a medical degree and became
an anesthesiologist, he treated Knisely, who had been diagnosed with
“I put him to sleep,” Mahaffey recalled. “I remember he looked up at me
and said, ‘I’m glad you didn’t go into research.’”
While in medical school, Mahaffey wed Faustina in 1953, and in 1954,
his arduous medical school experience was complete.
Mahaffey had always wanted to practice family medicine. While he was a
resident at Indianapolis General Hospital, he was introduced to a
variety of specialties during his first year of rotating internship.
“I wasn’t interested in anesthesiology, but they required it,” Mahaffey
said. “I wanted to be a family medicine doctor.”
He discovered that he liked anesthesiology, and decided to pursue it,
and he eventually became an anesthesiology instructor at Indiana-polis
General. After completion of training at the Indianapolis teaching
hospital, he was on vacation in Charleston and visited John Brown,
M.D., then chairman and founder of MUSC’s young anesthesiology
“I told him I intended to return South at some time in the future, and
he said, ‘Why don’t you join me now,’” Mahaffey recalled. Mahaffey
accepted Brown’s offer, and in 1958, he became an instructor in MUSC’s
anesthesiology department. His decision to accept the invitation
resulted in him becoming the nation’s longest serving anesthesiology
chair after his 35-year tenure was complete in 1994.
On March 9, John Mahaffey’s
long, distinguished career was marked by the establishment of The John
E. Mahaffey, M.D., Endowed Chair.
Mahaffey was the third department chairman of MUSC’s Department of
Anesthesia & Perioperative Medicine, which was founded in 1949.
A year before he became its chairman in 1964, Mahaffey was an
instructor of anesthesiology.
Shortly after taking the department helm, Mahaffey became listed on the
Water Aqualumni Tree, a prestigious honor bestowed on American
anesthesiologists. The tree was created by Lucien Morris, M.D., in
honor of Ralph Waters for clinical care teaching and research.
Mahaffey is listed as a fourth generation of these anesthe-siologists,
who are considered doctors’ teachers. He is the only MUSC doctor in
During his tenure as chairman, Mahaffey led the department through a
period of growth, both in size and stature.
In addition to expanding the anesthesiology program at MUSC, Mahaffey
advanced the field through his service as the president of the South
Carolina Society of Anesthesiologists and on the board of the American
Society of Anesthesiologists, along with several state and national
committees of scientific and educational organizations.
Due to his vision and leadership, the department remains one of the
most desirable and sought-after anesthesiology training programs in the
Friday, May 30, 2008
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