Donald M. Knowlan, MD, MACP
Upon entering the lobby of the School of Medicine, the first thing you see is the portrait of Donald Knowlan, MD, an emeritus professor of medicine. When approached to do a portrait, Dr. Knowlan required an action picture, rather than a formal portrait in full academic regalia. The action is unmistakable: an anxious patient looks into the eyes of a young student — whose hand is guided in the diagnostic touch from The Master, Coach Knowlan. His eyes also focus on the eyes of the student in anticipation of the “aha” teachable moment. “The portrait has become symbolic,” says Dean Stephen Ray Mitchell, “of the strength of Georgetown. I will point to the portrait and say, it’s the triangle of teaching the Healing Touch. That magical triangle is our day job, at the bedside with master teacher.”
Dr. Knowlan was born in New York City, grew up on Long Island, and graduated from the University of Dayton before receiving his medical degree from St. Louis University in 1954. His post-graduate training in Internal Medicine at Georgetown University (1954-’59) was interrupted by service in the U.S. Navy (1956-’58). He subsequently completed a cardiac fellowship with W. Proctor Harvey (1959-’60) at Georgetown and an American Heart-sponsored fellowship in biochemistry and nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh (1960-’61). He joined the Georgetown faculty (1961) first serving as the Director of the Federal Aviation Agency Cardiac Research Institute at Georgetown and then (1964) as Director of the Internal Medicine — Georgetown-Arlington Hospital (Virginia Hospital Center) affiliated education program. He was the Director of the hospital’s Coronary Intensive Care Unit — the third in the country and the first in the Washington, D.C., area.
Dr. Knowlan was the first inductee into the coveted Golden Orchard (1981). He became a full professor in 1991, and an active professor emeritus in 2001. He was a founding member of the esteemed Magis Society of Master Teachers in 2003. He was awarded an honorary degree (Honoris Causa) by the university in 2004. He received the first American College of Physicians National Affiliated Hospital Teacher’s Award in 1998, and became Master of the American College in 2008.
Dr. Knowlan served as a team physician to the Washington Redskins for over 25 years. He was president-elect and president of the Northern Virginia American Heart Association from 1980-’85. He was president of the Farifax Little League (1971-’73) and was active in the program (1968-’77) where he earned his nickname “Coach”.
At a recent reunion, the medical class of 1960 told Dean Mitchell that during their medical school days Knowlan encouraged them to apply to the best training programs in the country — which they did. This impressive class has accomplished great things and given back generously to Georgetown. This philanthropic spirit remains an important thread that is woven into the Georgetown University School of Medicine cultural framework.
A master clinical medical educator and spellbinding storyteller, Dr. Knowlan carries with him the well-remembered stories of the post World War II ascendency of Georgetown from its modest, regional standing to its place as a world-class academic medical center. Since “retiring” the year Dr. Mitchell came to the dean’s office, Dr. Knowlan returned full time to the University he loves dearly, and has worked nonstop for an additional 15 years as the premier master teacher — teaching in all years of the curriculum. He remains irrepressibly active on the medical campus, teaching classes and holding court in his favorite chair just outside Dean Mitchell’s office, or in the hospital doctor’s lounge. He cannot be far from the bedside he loves.
Knowlan, who has seen a lot of medical students arrive and graduate, has plenty of perspective to share about the journey they take to become doctors. His advice: Don’t think too far ahead – take it a day at a time. “The first year is very agonizing — as they look around, see the top kid from over 100 of America’s top universities — any they realize it’s not the same crowd they went to college with. Now they’re running with highly talented and skilled people. What they don’t realize is that they are one of them.”
There are lots of reasons Georgetown turns out great medical students, Knowlan will tell you. “The first is today I think the students are smarter. All of us from my generation think we couldn’t have gotten into medical school today, competing with these people — they are really dynamite! They’re good, highly motivated, and when they get here we don’t let them become passengers — they must step up, work hard for their patients.” Finally, Knowlan credits Georgetown’s long tradition of great educators, going back to Harold Jeghers, M.D., who had a singular focus on education and recruited young doctors such as W. Proctor Harvey, MD, to come to Georgetown and teach. Knowlan says, “My feeling is Georgetown attracts great people. They leave Georgetown well-prepared and oriented for clinical work. I can’t tell you how many times a residency program director says great things about our graduates, often selecting them as chief residents. These residency programs start saying, “We get these Georgetown kids, they have taken care of lots of patients. They come in here, work hard, know the job, and they focus and get it done.” Dr. Knowlan is one very important reason these graduates are excellent.