Who, What, Where | John J. Frey III, MD

John J. Frey III, MD, former chair and emeritus professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison, will receive the John G. Walsh Award for Lifetime Contributions to Family Medicine during FMX 2017.

Before boarding a plane to San Antonio, Frey talked about a person, place, and thing that greatly impacted his career. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.

John J. Frey III, MD (right), with Mario Ramirez, MD

John J. Frey III, MD (right), with Mario Ramirez, MD


The person who probably was the most important in my early career was Mario Ramirez. He was a solo GP in Roma, Texas. I spent a few months with Mario in the summer of 1969.

I was a kid coming from Chicago and Mario was very conservative. He was the judge as well as the GP there. Mario and I had this interesting relationship where we clearly came from backgrounds that were different in every way.

We would see 40, 50, 60 patients a day in a hospital and clinic named after his dad. It had about 15 beds, and we did everything. We delivered babies. We took care of everybody who came in from the region. We'd sit down at the end of the day and eat and talk for an hour or two— sometimes longer—about politics and practice and medicine and family—everything.

I went back to Chicago with this vision of Mario in my head. We (stayed) in constant touch since (that time). He died about four months ago at 90.

Mario became the first Latino on the University of Texas Board of Regents. He had a spectacular career and started a program for Latino kids in the Rio Grande Valley (the Med-Ed Program) to get health careers. He was always humble, but also was the most-determined human being I've ever met. Whatever Mario was, that's what I wanted to be: was respected and loved and honored for what he did, not necessarily what he earned or the car he drove.


I was a rookie teacher at the UMass, my first job. I had decided to become a teacher, but didn't know how to get there.

Dick Walton, who was the chair at UMass, said early on, "Why don't we teach a course on the family? Why don't you do that, John?"

I had no experience with curriculum, goals, objectives. I put together this course on the family with a bunch of people from other schools. We were looking for people who knew something about sociology and psychology and things like that.

We did it, and Dick did it. I was just the course director. Dick brought me in to meet with the dean of the school, who wanted a report on our activities over the last year. He told the dean I was the person who brought it together and it was the most wonderful course he'd ever seen. I still have the course, believe it or not, on audiotape in my files.

The idea that he would be positive about me and support me and encourage me in the eyes the institution was pretty remarkable. It was the kind of leadership that imprinted itself on my life: It's about us. It's not about my department; it's about our department. It's not my program; it's our program.


Via a long and complicated set of events, I went down to Miami to interview with Lynn Carmichael, MD, for a second-year residency position. I'd never heard of family medicine.

It was a place we went to because of what they were doing: Work in a community, take care of your own patients, be broad, be involved. It was full of people like me. It was the first time I ever felt I was part of a group that understood what I understood about what we wanted to do. These people are still some of the most important figures in my life.

Every time I talk to residents, I say, you didn't choose to be with these people, but they are going to affect you in ways you have no appreciation for. I was thrown into this stew of refugees from academia, immigrants to communities, rebels of one sort or the other. I went down there and I found purpose, meaning, colleagues, fellowship, direction, ideas. It was the most empowering part of my life.

Carmichael wasn't a micromanager. He trusted us. We published an article early in my career on residency control of a residency program where the residents ran the program and published it in the journal of medical education. Family medicine started to form down there.