Updated: January 23, 2013
Fund: George A. Dean M.D. Chair in Family Medicine Endowment FundGeorge A. Dean was born and raised in Detroit. His father owned a cleaning and laundry business at the intersection of John R. and Harper Roads. His mother was a homemaker. He had a sister named Charlotte. His journey to a life in medicine began with a dream - of his father's. "There was a drugstore next to his store and my father had always had a desire to own a drugstore," explains Dean, from his winter home in Florida. "So he wanted me to go to college to become a pharmacist. That way I would be a pharmacist and he could run the store."
After graduation from Detroit's Central High School, Dean, ever a dutiful son, enrolled in Wayne State University where he found himself taking biology, physics and chemistry classes with many pre-med students. "I was getting 4.0 grades and the pre-med guys were struggling and I was helping them out. They said, 'George, you're such a good student; when we become doctors, we'll send you all our prescriptions!' Well, I scratched my head and decided to change to pre-med. My father was not too happy." At the age of 20, Dean graduated from Wayne State, but before entering the medical school there, he had something important to do. "I married my childhood sweetheart," he says, happily.
Dean met Vivian Lipsitz when he was 15 and she was 13, but a fledgling romance ended quickly. "There was a song that was famous at that time," Dean says, "Frank Sinatra's 'Time After Time,' and that was 'our song.' After that, like a Pavlovian response, I would cry every time I heard it.'" But often, time is all that's needed. Two years later, Dean was walking out of his high school auditorium when he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned around to see Vivian. "I saw her face and knew my prayers had been answered!" he says. "We were in love."
Despite the dire warnings of their parents, the young couple married in June of 1952. That September, Dean entered Wayne State's medical school. The next four years were a whirlwind of hard work, penny-pinching, and the joys of family life: two little boys and two little girls in quick succession.
To pay tuition and support his growing family, Dean worked tirelessly at a variety of jobs. He sorted mail at the Post Office. He counted pollen spores for the city of Detroit. He worked as a scrub nurse at a hospital and in the dispensary at Ford Motor Company. "I worked until I collapsed," he says, "but one of my proudest accomplishments is that despite all the stress I was under, I still made AOA and graduated at the top of my class."
Dean spent the next three years in the Navy. He interned at Great Lakes Naval Hospital in Great Lakes, Ill., then completed post-graduate training at the Grosse Isle Naval Air Station in Grosse Isle, Michigan. He toyed with the idea of a career in radiology, but quickly abandoned the notion. "I'm a people person. I wanted to interact with patients and take care of families and deliver babies and do surgery. I decided the great love of my life was family medicine. Plus, I had a family to support and I had to start practicing!"
He opened a small, one-room office in Redford Township, hired a nurse named Phyllis Youngs, and got to work, taking care of families. A few years later, he moved his practice to Southfield and has been there ever since. Today, 50 years later, Youngs is retired from active nursing, but still works part-time as Dean's assistant. "It was such a happy, wonderful practice and it grew very large, just through word of mouth," says Youngs. "I enjoyed my nursing career with Dr. Dean so much. He was such a patient, kind doctor and his patients had such confidence in him. My grandmother came all the way from West Virginia to see him. I said, 'Grandma, don't they have doctors in West Virginia?' and she said, 'Yes, but not like Dr. Dean!'"
Along with his burgeoning practice, Dean worked hard to build and strengthen his chosen specialty. It was the 1960s and family physicians were in short supply - only 2 or 3 percent of medical students were choosing that path. "My colleagues and I had to do something to entice medical students to go into family practice," he recalls, "so in 1969, we created the American Board of Family Practice. In America, you have status if you're board-certified. I was a charter member, I passed the test the first year and was recertified six times after that. In other specialties, if you passed, you were certified for the rest of your life, but we wanted family practice to be far above the other specialties," he says.
Dean's activism spread further as well. He was deeply involved with the Wayne County Academy of Family Physicians, and was president of the Michigan Academy of Family Physicians. He lobbied Wayne State University Medical School to establish a department of family medicine. It was an uphill battle, he says, but it paid off and Dean turned his attention to the University of Michigan.
As part of a delegation from the Michigan Academy of Family Physicians, Dean spoke with John Gronvall, then dean of the U-M Medical School. "I remember he looked at me and said, 'What in the world do you think you can teach our medical students that we are not teaching them now?'" Dean had his answer ready. "I told him we could teach them humanistic medicine - that patients needed to be treated as personalities, rather than diseases or organs. I told him that patients belong to a family, to a culture. I told him we could teach them comprehensive medicine, wholistic medicine, preventative medicine and continuity of care."
Eventually, Gronvall agreed and in 1978, the Department of Family Medicine was established in the U-M Medical School. Throughout his life, Dean's work in medicine has reflected a passionate caring for people and a desire to improve health care. It stems in part, he says, from a traumatic experience in his youth. "When I was 7 years old," he recalls, "my parents told me I had to go to doctor's office and have my picture taken. So they took me to the office in my pajamas and took me in a room with a big, bright light, and said, 'Now we're going to take your picture.' then two men grabbed me and held me down and put an ether mask over my face. My tonsils and adenoids were taken out.
When I decided on medicine, I promised myself that I would never let anything like that happen to any patient of mine. It was definitely one of my motivations in becoming a physician." To Dean, medicine is much more than symptoms, diagnoses, and prescriptions - as quickly as possible. "The personality of the physician itself should be a healing modality," he says. "No matter what is wrong, I want to make my patients feel comfortable and confident that I'm their advocate, and that I'll always be there for them."
His long career in the same community has meant that he has sometimes cared for six generations of people in the same family. "That's what I mean about continuity of care - and that's the magic of family medicine!" he says. He has helped to bring over 2000 babies into the world. Good family physicians do not practice in a vacuum, he says. "You have to know your limits and know when to call for help or refer patient. If you do that and do it correctly, there's no better way of providing care for the families of America." At the busiest time of his career, he recalls, he would go to the hospital in the morning to do surgeries, then make rounds on his patients, then go to his office to see patients, do house calls, and finally return to the hospital in the evening before coming home. "I don't know if I could do that now," he laughs.
In 1986, he was named Family Physician of the Year by the Michigan Chapter of the American Academy of Family Physicians. In 2002, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the AAFP which today boasts over 100,000 members. In addition to his tireless service for virtually every family practice professional organization in the country, he has traveled to Russia, Spain, England and China to help promote family medicine. In addition to his work at Michigan, he has served on the Wayne State University Medical School faculty and worked to create a department of family medicine at Michigan State University.
Throughout his career, Dean took care to nurture and enjoy his own family. The Deans took trips every year: to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, to Washington, D.C., to the Grand Canyon and California. "My family is the most important thing in my life," Dean says. "We spent quality time with our four children and my wife played an important role in filling in for me when I was working." In addition to managing things on the home front, Vivian Dean has been a stalwart exemplar of volunteerism in the Detroit area. She has served as a docent at the Detroit Institute of Arts, worked to help assimilate newly arrived Russian immigrants into American life, and devoted her time and skills to a variety of philanthropic organizations.
In 2003, George Dean sold his Southfield practice under a special arrangement that allows him to continue caring for his patients without the hassle of administration. He splits his time between the Detroit area and his home in Florida and devotes a good deal of time to an extraordinary hobby. It started, Dean says, when he and Vivian took a trip to the Middle East in 1962. In the lobby of their hotel, Vivian Dean fell in love with a silver and gold chess set made by a Yemeni craftsman. The couple's $200 souvenir budget was spent in an impulse buy that would spark an enduring interest. "After that, whenever we went on a trip, we would buy a chess set," says Dean "Then we got the bug and started going on 'chess set safaris.' We would pick a country, learn how to say, 'Do you have any antique chess sets?' in the language of that country, then rent a car and drive around and buy them!"
Today, the Deans have the most extensive collection of antique and fine art chess sets in the world. Included in the collection is the only Faberge chess set ever made. Dean is the founder and president emeritus of Chess Collectors International. The couple's love of collecting has since extended to Impressionist, post-WWII, and contemporary fine art. Several of their paintings were included in a Pop art exhibition at the University of Michigan Museum of Art; an exhibition of the couple's chess sets is currently being organized there. Says UMMA director James Steward, "I first came to know George as an art collector - one with wide-ranging tastes, and broad yet deep curiosity about the fine and decorative arts. But what I've come most to appreciate is the warm humanity that informs his convictions. His passion for sharing the value of art is linked strongly to everything that has made him a compassionate and inspiring leader in family medicine."
The Deans are deeply proud of the many accomplishments of their four children. Keith Dean is a Brooklyn, New York psychiatric social worker. Stephen Dean, also in Brooklyn, is an attorney. Laurie Dean Amir runs a program for learning-impaired and autistic students for the Birmingham, Michigan school system. Randy Dean is a Bloomfield Hills, Michigan child psychologist. "They've really turned out to be wonderful people," says their father, adding that his and Vivian's 12 grandchildren - ranging in age from 4-19 - are equally wonderful. Currently, five of those grandchildren are students at the University of Michigan.
Dean says he started thinking seriously about creating an endowed fund in the Department of Family Practice back in the 2003, when the Department celebrated its 25 anniversary. "I've always had a soft feeling in my heart for the U-M; it's always been an ivory tower for me. I was brought up on Michigan football!" The talking turned to action.
In 2006, the George Dean, M.D. Family Medicine Chair became a reality. The professorship funds the work of Thomas Schwenk (M.D. 1975), who is chair of the Department of Family Medicine and an associate professor in the U-M Depression Center. Schwenk's clinical interests include family-centered obstetrical care, depression, health promotion, sports medicine, overtraining in athletes, and burnout in athletes. His research interests focus on mental illness in primary care, difficult physician-patient relationships, family function and illness, and nutritional supplements and psychogenic drug use in athletes.
Says Schwenk, "Dr. Dean provided critical political and organizational support for the creation of the Department in the 1970s, and now, 30 years later, has provided critical financial support in the creation of the Department's first endowed chair. In these very different, but equally wonderful, ways he is responsible for contributing to the highest level of excellence and quality of Family Medicine at the University of Michigan." The Dean Professorship was formally established in May 2007. "I am very proud to have my name associated with one of the best departments in the country," says Dean.
Learn more about: