January 30, 2018

Portrait of former chair of Medicine unveiled before descendants and School leaders

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2 Portrait low resA portrait by artist Jay Wesley Jacobs of James Somerville McLester, M.D., LLD, was unveiled Jan. 18 in the main lobby of the UAB Community Health Services Building, the site where McLester’s primary care-focused practice formerly stood.

McLester was born in Tuscaloosa in 1877, earned his bachelor of arts degree from the University of Alabama, and received his medical degree from the University of Virginia. He served as chief of Medicine at the School of Medicine when it was located in Tuscaloosa, and was named the first chair and professor of Medicine at the new Medical College of Alabama when it opened in Birmingham in 1945. He remained in that position until his retirement in 1949. He is remembered for his leadership during the School of Medicine’s transition from a two-year pre-clinical medical school to a four-year medical degree-granting institution.

Brothers James French and W.W. French III, McLester’s grandsons, and their wives Mary Dunn French and Jane Blough French, respectively, attended the event along with other members of the extended French family—more than 20 family members across three generations in total.

Also at the event were university and School of Medicine leaders Anupam Agarwal, M.D., executive vice dean of the School of Medicine; Tom Brannan, UAB vice president for development and alumni; Michael Faircloth, M.D., associate professor and interim chair of the Department of Family and Community Medicine; T. Michael Harrington, M.D., professor emeritus of family medicine in the Department of Family and Community Medicine and longtime physician to Mr. and Mrs. James French; William Curry, M.D., senior vice president for population health for UAB Health System, professor in the Division of General Internal Medicine, and associate dean for Primary Care and Rural Medicine; and B. Earl Salser Jr., M.D., associate professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine and director of the Primary Care Scholars Program.

In addition to his roles as a physician, educator, and administrator, McLester led a number of pioneering studies in nutrition. He helped put the then-recently discovered vitamins nicotinic acid, thiamin, ascorbic acid, and folic acid to use in the treatment and prevention of major deficiency diseases, including pellagra, beriberi, scurvy, and megaloblastic anemia of pregnancy.

1 Family Group ShotMore than 20 family members of James Somerville McLester, M.D., LLD, across three generations attended the portrait unveiling of their relative.McLester conducted research on pellagra at Birmingham’s Hillman Hospital during the 1920s and subsequently authored a popular textbook, Nutrition and Diet in Health and Disease (first published in 1927), that went through seven editions, with William J. Darby, M.D., of Vanderbilt University as co-author in later editions. The textbook was considered a standard reference for medical students and clinicians and is still available for purchase today.

McLester held a number of leadership positions with professional organizations. He served as chair of the Council on Food and Nutrition of the American Medical Association (AMA), and as president of the AMA in 1935. He was also president of the State Medical Association and a member of the State Committee of Public Health and the Board of Medical Examiners.

The AMA originally commissioned the portrait in the late 1940s to acknowledge McLester’s service to and influence on medicine. At the School of Medicine’s annual Scholarship Dinner this past October, James French reflected on his grandfather’s legacy, which inspired him and Mary Dunn French to establish the McLester Endowed Medical Scholarship in 2004. French shared with guests that he and a cousin originally unveiled the portrait as adolescents, a ritual that French’s own grandchildren re-enacted this January, more than 60 years later.

To support medical scholarships or primary care at UAB, contact Jessica Brooks Lane, director of development for medical scholarship and primary care, at 205-975-4452 or jblane@uab.edu.