"The Mother of MYOFASCIAL - TRIGGER POINT Knowledge"


Biographical Sketch

Dr. Janet G. Travell (1901-1997) was truly a remarkable woman. She once said that, "Life is like a bicycle - you don't fall off until you stop pedaling...It is better to wear out than to rust out, so keep pedaling." She kept pedaling all her life, and carved out a remarkable career, leaving behind a pioneering body of work related to the treatment of myofascial pain.

Janet Travell was born in 1901 to Willard and Janet Davidson Travell. Her father was a practicing physician for over sixty years, and his enthusiasm for life and medicine influenced both Janet and her sister Virginia (Travell Weeks) to follow in his footsteps. Janet graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Wellesley College in 1922. In 1926 she earned her M.D. from Cornell University Medical College (New York City), receiving the John Metcalf Polk Memorial Award for the highest scholastic standing during her four years in medical school. Two years of internship and residency at New York Hospital followed, in which she simultaneously served as ambulance surgeon on the New York City police force. She was given the rank of Lieutenant, and described the period as "really fascinating and valuable" to her medical training.

Dr. Travell married John Powell, an investment counselor, in 1929. The marriage, which lasted until Mr. Powell's death in 1973, produced two daughters, Janet and Virginia. Following her residency at New York Hospital, Dr. Travell was a research fellow at Bellevue Hospital, studying the effect of digitalis in thousands of patients with lobar pneumonia. She then returned to Cornell and began work in the Department of Pharmacology as an instructor and later professor. Before acquiring a special interest in muskuloskeletal pain, Dr. Travell was Consultant in Cardiology at Sea View Hospital in Staten Island, doing studies on chest pain.

It was during her time studying arterial diseases at Beth Israel Hospital in New York as a Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation fellow (1939-1941) that Dr. Travell became absorbed in the problems of skeletal muscle pain. Dr. Travell helped develop new anesthetic techniques for treating painful muscle spasm by employing local procaine injection and vapocoolant sprays such as ethyl chloride (used widely in sports medicine today.) It was this pioneering expertise that changed her life in more ways than one. In 1955 she was called upon by the orthopedic surgeon of then Senator John F. Kennedy, who had failed to recover from major back surgeries related to injuries he suffered in World War II. Dr. Travell was able to locate muscular sources for his chronic pain, and injected low-level procaine directly into the Senator's lumbar muscles, which proved effective. She also discovered that one of Kennedy's legs was shorter than the other, and ordered special shoes that would relieve the stress this condition put on his back. Without the medical expertise of Dr. Travell, Kennedy and his family were convinced that his political career would have come to a premature end.

When John Kennedy was elected President in 1960, he appointed Dr. Travell to the post of Personal Physician to the President, making her the first woman to hold the position. She advocated his use of a rocking chair to alleviate President Kennedy's back pain and in the process popularized their use among the public, who saw the President pictured in his rocker in the Oval Office. (Dr. Travell took aspects of seating design seriously, and worked as a consultant to such companies as John Deere and Lockheed to produce more comfortable and supportive seats for tractors and airplanes.) Dr. Travell would go on to serve President Lyndon Johnson after the death of President Kennedy, and left the White House in 1965.

Dr. Travell, who was appointed to the staff of The George Washington University as Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine shortly after coming to the White House, remained active teaching, writing, and giving lectures across the country up until her death in 1997. Dr. Travell was the author of more than 100 scientific articles and co-authored, with long-time colleague David Simons, the acclaimed two-volume book Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: The Trigger Point Manual. In 1968, Dr. Travell published her autobiography, Office Hours: Day and Night. She said she wrote it for a number of reasons: to inform young people about the profession of medicine, to represent to parents and educators the life of a female physician, to present a philosophy of medicine and a way of life, and to record for history personal recollections of her years in the White House. In its pages one finds a woman of incredible physical and mental vitality.

The zeal Dr. Travell had for life was evident in her professional career as well. The pioneering techniques she developed for treating and controlling muscular pain were shared with colleagues and taught to other physicians, thereby allowing countless patients to benefit from her research and practice over the course of her life, and well beyond.


The Janet G. Travell, M.D. Papers were donated to the Gelman Library University Archives in 1998 by her daughters, Virginia Powell Wilson and Janet Powell Pinci. Dr. Janet G. Travell (1901-1997) was a distinguished member of the medical community, serving as Personal Physician to two United States Presidents: John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson (and the first woman to hold the post.) She was also renowned as an expert on myofascial pain - a term used to describe pain and dysfunction of skeletal muscles - and pioneered numerous techniques for dealing with chronic pain. Dr. Travell co-authored, with David Simons, the acclaimed two-volume book Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: The Trigger Point Manual. (Volume 1 was published in 1983 and dealt with the upper half of body, volume 2 was published in 1992 and dealt with the lower half.) Dr. Travell served as Associate (and later Emeritus) Clinical Professor of Medicine at The George Washington University, and remained an active figure up until her death at the age of ninety-five, writing, giving lectures, and attending conferences.

The collection consists of 104 boxes, or 44.5 linear feet of materials, dated from 1922-1997 (bulk 1945-1985). The collection includes manuscripts, reports, correspondence, research data, articles, newspaper clippings, photographs, and a variety of material from Dr. Travell's service in the White House from 1961-1965. At this time the collection is not fully processed or organized into defined series descriptions, however the container list does accurately capture box and folder contents.

The collection is open to research, with the following proviso from the donors: "This collection is for research and study use only. Permission must be obtained from the donors for publication and/or any commercial use of the materials." (Applications for special permission waivers from the donors should be made to University Archives staff.)

This collection is of great value to scholars interested in researching the development of treatments for myofascial pain over the past sixty years, as well as those interested in women's history and recent U.S. political history. Other collections in University Archives related to medical research include the Walter Freeman/James Watts Collection and the Thelma Hunt Papers. Researchers should use the following citation when citing this collection or records within it:

The Janet G. Travell, M.D. Papers
The George Washington University
The Melvin Gelman Library
University Archives

All names and addresses of patients have been deleted from the record.

Go to the collection's home
University Archives - Collections
Finding Aid
Prepared by Lyle Slovick
July 2000
(Accession #704)

The George Washington University
Melvin Gelman Library
University Archives
2130 H Street, NW
Washington, D.C. 20052

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