Obit: J.Willis Hurst, famed Emory cardiologist

Pioneering cardiologist. Prolific author and editor. Master teacher. Dynamic Emory University administrator. Dr. J. Willis Hurst was all of these.

"Dr. Hurst was one of a handful of doctors who established cardiology as a specialty," said Dr. Douglas Morris, director of the Emory Clinic and the J. Willis Hurst professor at Emory's School of Medicine. "He and his Emory colleague, the late Dr. Bruce Logue, trained a majority of the cardiologists practicing in this area."

Dr. Morris said Dr. Hurst was a firm believer in the adage: Don't just treat the disease; treat the patients.

"They were a priority for Dr. Hurst," he said. "He thought it was selfish, for instance, to keep a patient in a waiting room long after the time of his or her appointment."

Dr. Hurst was similarly sensitive, said Dr. Morris, to the differences in the patients he saw, although he made a point of giving each one, wealthy or indigent, the same high level of care.

A critic of inequities in America's health delivery system, Dr. Hurst favored broadening coverage of government health insurance, said his son, Dr. John W. Hurst Jr. of Atlanta.

Dr. John Cantwell, a cardiologist affiliated with Piedmont Hospital and the chief medical officer for the Atlanta Olympics, said he trained at Grady Hospital for only a year under Dr. Hurst, but that early 1970s experience had a profound influence on him.

"I keep a photograph of Dr. Hurst above my examining table," he said. "It's to remind me of all the things he considered to be ‘musts' -- to do thorough examinations, to keep accurate records, to be an educator myself and pass knowledge on to nurses and patients, to be more than a cardiologist and keep an eye out for signs of unrelated illnesses."

Dr. J. Willis Hurst Sr., 90, of Atlanta died Oct. 1 at Emory University Hospital of complications following a stroke. His memorial service was held Saturday at Northside United Methodist Church. H.M Patterson & Son, Spring Hill, was in charge of arrangements.

Reared in Carrolton, Dr. Hurst earned degrees at the University of West Georgia and the Medical College of Georgia before moving to residencies in California and Massachusetts, returning to Georgia in 1950 to teach at Emory.

His career was interrupted when he was called into military service during the Korean War and assigned to the Bethesda (Md.) Naval Hospital. There he treated service personnel but also Washington notables. One of the latter was Lyndon Johnson, then the majority leader of the Senate, who had suffered his first heart attack. Dr. Hurst and Mr. Johnson became close friends and Dr. Hurst advised Mr. Johnson about his health during and after his presidency.

"Dr. Hurst was a wonderful, caring friend of our family for 50 years as well as a great physician for Daddy," said Lynda Robb of McLean, Va., elder daughter of President Johnson.

"We stayed in touch over the years and not just for help with medical matters, though I did ask him to suggest a cardiologist in the McLean area so I wouldn't pester him with questions about my own heart," she said. "When I called the cardiologist he recommended and dropped Dr. Hurst's name, he agreed to see me. It was like I had spoken the magic words."

In 1956 Dr. Hurst became chair of Emory's department of medicine, a position he held until he stepped down in 1986. He was an active recruiter, increasing the medical faculty from 14 members to 140 and attracting students from every state and many countries abroad. As a cardiologist at Emory and Grady hospitals, he helped train 5,000 residents and fellows and 3,500 medical students. In addition, he wrote more than 450 medical journal articles and authored or edited 74 books, including "The Heart," an authoritative textbook of cardiology that has been revised numerous times and is now titled "Hurst's The Heart."

Teaching doctors was a vocation for Dr. Hurst and he was proud of the awards he received, such as the Gifted Teacher honor he won twice from the American Cardiology Society.

Writing was his hobby and he devoted many early-morning hours to it. Typically, said Dr. Hurst Jr., his father would rise at 4 a.m. to write.

"Then he'd be off to handle his teaching and administrative duties," he said. "After putting in a 14-hour day, he made certain he could sit down to dinner with us at 6:30 in the evening."

In 1995 Dr. Hurst and his grandson, Stuart Hurst, who was 10 years old at the time, began to collaborate on a book for young people. The book, titled "The Heart: Kids' Questions and Answers," was published four years later by McGraw-Hill.

"It was fun. I supplied the questions and he had the answers," said the youngest Dr. Hurst, now in his first year of residency at Emory and Grady hospitals.

In its August 2011 issue, the Texas Heart Institute Journal called Dr. Hurst "an icon in cardiovascular medicine. His contributions to our profession in general and to cardiology in particular have earned him a front-row seat in the pantheon of physician-scientists and medical educators." The Journal's tribute to Dr. Hurst accompanied the last article of his to be published, a guest editorial imploring doctors to give more time, thought and care to their patients' needs.

Nelie Hurst, his wife of 61 years, died in 2004. Survivors also include two other sons, Stephen Hurst and Philip Hurst, both of Atlanta, and six grandchildren.

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