John B. Emans, MD
John grew up in Upstate NY in a rapidly expanding school system with a mix of rural kids and offspring of the nearby General Electric research labs and Knolls Atomic Power laboratory. He benefited from an era when there was much public spending on science and education and was fortunate to have a dynamic science teacher living next door. John’s future in orthopaedics may have been preordained as he was an AFS exchange student in Davos, Switzerland where he also fostered his love for ski racing. In retrospect the beginnings of the AO fracture group were evident all around when he was hospitalized for appendicitis on a ward full of operative lower extremity fractures.
John was accepted to Harvard College with plans to major in Physics, then briefly German History and Literature, or Religion. Fortunate for us, he ended up in the Biochemical Sciences and his thesis was mentored by A W Pappenheimer of botulinum toxin fame (more foreshadowing?). In a social experiment, Harvard Medical School took a large cohort (50% of John’s Medical School class) from the Harvard College class of 1966 (including Mike Millis and Jean Herriot). The late 60’s had lots of social unrest, including previous medical school classes who refused to attend class, locked out professors and held their own alternative classes. Unbeknownst to John’s class, their cohort was selected to be the “happy class” and they turned out to be an upbeat, very cohesive and fun-loving group. Jean and John were married between their first and second years.
Skiing with Jean. They have enjoyed many decades of skiing with multiple family generations
The Dean of Students strongly suggested Internal Medicine as a career, but John chose General Surgery at the (then) Peter Bent Brigham in Boston. During residency, he found Orthopedic surgeons and their work much more fun and toward the end of the second year he applied to orthopedics. His interview for the Harvard Orthopedic program was punctuated by the JBJS editor telling him to look elsewhere as the Harvard Program was not impressed with John’s aspirations for trauma and sports. Yet Drennan Lowell and Clement Sledge endorsed John and he was accepted into the Harvard Program. His first case was an AIS patient at Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH), John Hall was the surgeon and Ray Morrissy was the chief resident. At the end of residency, he switched from being Chief Resident at Mass General to Children’s because there were fewer night responsibilities, Jean was a pediatric attending there and a second child was on the way. Equally important; John mused, “who would pass up a chance to work with John Hall for 6 months?”
John’s daughter was born with orthopedic problems and he suddenly got very interested in pediatric orthopedics.
John reflects on his family with grace and humility; readily acknowledging “he is the slouch”
in the group. Jean is currently Professor of Pediatrics and has grown the Division of Adolescent Medicine to prominence. The Emans Textbook of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology
is now on its 7th edition. Jean has developed the BCH Center for Young Women's Health and presently heads the office for faculty development at Children's and heads the multi-disciplinary training program in adolescent medicine. John and Jean have two children; Matthew Emans lives in Boston with his wife Weatherly and family (including 3 grandchildren); he has been co-founder of several successful software startups. Daughter Kate Sims is a Professor of Economics and of Environmental Studies at Amherst College (MA). Always prioritizing family, Jean and John also get to see Kate, husband Chris and the 2 Amherst grandchildren frequently as they keep an apartment in Amherst.
Five Grandchildren – the most fun of all
Two years of general orthopedics in the Army followed residency. There was no time for a fellowship and fellowships were uncommon. John Hall offered him a 2-year job after his Army time with the agreement that he would then leave; but somehow, he stayed at Children’s. John has always felt that the opportunities for growth at BCH have been unmatched. While all of the original faculty did all of pediatric orthopedics, they were large enough to foster sub-specialization. While common now, this became the start of pediatric orthopaedic sub-specialization. John’s focus at Children’s evolved and over time included sports, tumor, two decades of myelodysplasia care, and then finally only spine.
John credits not only John Hall’s guidance but as much from Paul Griffin who was their Chief during a tumultuous period. John is also indebted to the opportunities offered by members of POSNA, SRS, PSSG, SDSG, ICEOS. John has learned the most from these groups and the associations and the opportunities to teach. John explains, “Teaching your peers tests and focuses your own knowledge and beliefs.”
John remains eternally grateful to his partners for the opportunity to concentrate on spine, but also thankful that he had many years of caring for the whole breadth of pediatric orthopedics. He feels that the growth in the BCH orthopaedic specialty has been staggering with 52 physicians in the Department of Orthopedics and Sports Medicine. While John has thrived in the rich, collaborative environment of his partners at Boston Children’s Hospital, they have thrived because of him. Current POSNA President Min Kocher reflects; “John Emans is a close friend, colleague, and mentor. When I was a resident and fellow, Dr. Emans was known as the “junkyard dog.” At morning X-ray rounds, you had better be able to justify your treatment plan and if your postoperative X-rays weren’t perfect, he would draw a trash bucket on the X-ray film. Over time as a colleague, I learned that was because he demanded technical excellence in surgery and careful consideration in thinking. This is how I would characterize him: technically excellent and intellectually thoughtful.”
Past President Peter Waters was greatly impacted by John; “Who could possibly describe John Emans in just a few sentences… I presented my first podium paper at SRS as a junior resident thanks to John. More important on that trip to Bermuda; Janet, our infant daughter Rebecca, and I shared a beautiful dinner at our rented cabin with Jean and John. The personal time was more of a gift than the honor of presenting his work to the spine world. John was always supportive. ‘The iconoclast’ was one of his many nicknames because John never gave any of us a brief answer, a quick response; if you asked for his opinion on a patient, on a leadership issue, or on life, you got a serious, thoughtful, impactful response. He looked and listened in earnest with a fresh set of eyes and ears; then shared openly and humbly. Caring, emphatic, skilled beyond words, smart as can be, and as hard working as anyone I ever had the joy of partnering with. John, in a few words? ‘The ultimate professional’. All of us at BCH have been blessed to call him partner, mentor, friend.”
He is most proud to have been part of the training experience for a generation of pediatric orthopedists. John hopes some of them will “continue to seek operative perfection, not just ‘OK’, and treat the soft tissues like they were their own!“
He is happy to see the present level of interest in early onset spinal deformity and is relieved that pediatric spinal deformity surgery is still within the realm of pediatric orthopedic surgeons. “For decades at Boston Children’s we have pursued improvement in non-operative scoliosis treatment. It’s great to see a renewed interest and belief in successful non-operative scoliosis treatment. Thanks to my many colleagues and trainees and patients who have taught me so much.”
John’s advice to young pediatric orthopedics is unique. “You get to work with and watch kids grow! Growth is ever-present and is both the enemy and a friend. One of the original attractions of pediatric orthopedics was (is) the opportunity to work on the entire musculoskeletal system in a wide-ranging set of pathologies from trauma to neuromuscular. I encourage the younger generation to resist early sub-specialization as long as they can or at least try to retain the opportunity to practice in other areas of pediatric orthopedics. There is a lot to be learned in the rest of pediatric orthopedics that can inform what you do in a sub-specialty.”
John continues, “I would also resist the urge to just be a surgeon and leave all the non-operative orthopedics to PT’s or APC’s. There is as much to learn and more challenges in the clinic than in the OR. Consider that at best you can solve several problems in a single day spent in the OR, but in a day in the clinic you can see 20 - 50 different patients and problems! As a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, you know the whole of orthopedic pathophysiology best. The non-operative challenges deserve your attention”.
Perhaps if we all follow the direction of Dr. John Emans; we will be remembered as Don Bae reflects; "To me, Dr. Emans is the epitome of the academic pediatric orthopaedic surgeon and the kind of person we all aspire to be. Incredibly knowledgeable, yet compassionate and humble. Technically gifted, and even more generous and kind. Unwaveringly devoted to his family, his colleagues, and his patients. He has taught me so much about pediatric orthopaedics and about being an honorable person, and we are all better because of his contributions to our lives."
Biography written by Dr. Kenneth Noonan, on behalf of the Hall of Fame Committee. 2022.
John Emans. Sailing along…