Dr. Philip Peven

100 Years, 9,000 Babies, and a Lifetime of Memories

By Amy Crawford
Share Email Print
Text: A

It was nearly 80 years ago, but Philip Peven (M.D. 1941)  can still remember getting his first white coat, early in his third year at the University of Michigan Medical School.

“We proudly wore them on campus,” he says with a smile. “I remember my roommate and I walking out on the Diag and getting glances from passing students. Our white coats and stethoscopes were markers of our future.”

The driven son of a Detroit grocer, Peven reveled in the hard-won symbol of his perseverance. It was 1939 and Hitler had just invaded Poland, but the war seemed a world away from Ann Arbor as the future doctor bicycled between the Diag, his fraternity house, and the Old Main Hospital on North University Avenue. Medical school tuition was $250 a year.

That all changed soon after he graduated in 1941.

“Pearl Harbor was in December of my first year as an intern,” he recalls. “We were the first resident class — 800 of us around the country — during the war in 1942. The Army gobbled us all up, because they needed medical personnel and were getting ready to go overseas.”

World War II claimed four class of 1941 members, Peven says: “one on the invasion of Guadalcanal, one went down with his destroyer in the Pacific Naval Battle, one in France on D-Day in 1944, and one in 1945 in Germany.”

Today, Peven is the last surviving member of the Class of 1941, and, at 100 years old, the oldest U-M Medical School alumnus. And although he retired from practice 30 years ago, his memories remain as vivid as ever.

Captain Hawkeye

Assigned to the 16th Medical Regiment, which was then attached to the 1st Armored Division, Peven reported to Fort Devens in Massachusetts in July 1942, shortly after starting his residency at the Michael Reese Hospital and Medical Center in Chicago.

“I walked in, saluted the first lieutenant on duty, and said, ‘Lt. Peven reporting for duty, sir.’ He looked up, said, ‘Get your footlocker packed, we’re leaving for overseas in 36 hours,’” Peven says. “The next thing I knew, I was in England, after zig-zagging across the submarine-infested Atlantic Ocean.”

As it turned out, Peven would be glad he was on that transport. Stationed for several months in a small town, Peven was invited to a farewell party for a local young woman named Kay, who was leaving to study music at Cambridge University, and to get a degree from the Royal Academy of Music.

“I took a look at her and lightning struck me,” Peven says.

They talked all evening, and in the next two months, Peven visited Kay at Cambridge. But that November, he was involved in the invasion of North Africa, where he was assigned as a combat surgeon. Kay promised to wait for him. He promised to write.

“I wrote whenever I had time,” he says. “At our tent hospital, we’d be operating on the wounded 12 hours a day, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. I’d go to sleep and dream about surgery all night. It seemed to be a 24-hour job!”

Eventually, Peven found himself on the operating table, after the Germans strafed a convoy he was riding in, killing his driver and wounding him in the thigh and leg. After a long recovery in an officers’ hospital, he qualified to be sent home, but he insisted on remaining in North Africa to stay overseas for Kay’s sake. He landed among the front-line troops in the 1943 Allied invasion of Italy, before joining a MASH Unit after the capture of Naples.

“Many times we operated with our helmets on,” he says, adding with a laugh and a nod to the old TV show. “You can call me Captain Hawkeye.”

“Deliver the Patient Who Came to You”

When the Germans surrendered in May 1945, Peven flew to England and married Kay. The couple rendezvoused in Chicago, where Peven completed his residency before joining his cousin’s Detroit OB-GYN practice. Compared to combat, gynecology, surgery, and delivering babies was happier work. But it was no less exhausting.

“It was a life that, for 40 years, I don’t know how I did it,” says Peven, who would also serve as department chief at Grace Hospital in Detroit (now DMC Sinai-Grace) and clinical associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Wayne State University College of Medicine. “Some months I’d deliver 50 babies.”

His typical schedule usually involved surgery in the morning, office appointments in the afternoon, and staying with patients as they labored through the night. Tiring as it was, Peven believes that many obstetricians today rely too heavily on Caesarean section when labor progresses too slowly. He also laments that large group practices mean a mother is now far less likely to have her baby delivered by the doctor who cared for her throughout her pregnancy.

“Deliver the patient who came to you,” he urges today’s obstetricians. “Try to be more personal.”

Peven has found other trends more positive, however. In the 1950s and ’60s, birthing mothers were often sedated with narcotics and a drug that caused amnesia. Although the regimen was known as “twilight sleep,” the women would thrash and hallucinate throughout their labor. The medication also depressed the newborn’s breathing, and babies often needed to be resuscitated shortly after birth. As an alternative, Peven pioneered caudal analgesia, a precursor to today’s more common epidural, at Grace Hospital. Later, he introduced optional drug-free, “natural” childbirth, a radical concept at the time.

Over a career that spanned the entire baby boom generation, Peven would deliver about 9,000 babies (his secretary helped maintain the running total). While most were singletons, in 1958 he delivered identical quadruplets, a marvel at that time which made the papers. (“My quads all went into nursing! They all became RNs!” he says, proudly.) Eventually, some of his “babies” asked him to deliver their own babies.

“Towards the end of my practice, my babies were into their 30s and 40s,” he says. “They’d come up to me at restaurants and say, ‘Dr. Peven, you delivered me!’”

Proud Alumnus

Peven, who retired in 1987, has remained an active alumnus, originally organizing class reunions for 25 years and setting up a Class of 1941 scholarship fund. As a gift to the Medical School, he donated his collection of rare, illustrated medical books from the 16th to 19th centuries (many purchased in Italy during the war, when booksellers were happy to trade fine editions for chocolate bars or cartons of cigarettes).

Kay, who had her own successful career as a singer and classical guitarist, died in 2013. Peven keeps her photograph in a place of honor in his comfortably appointed Southfield, Mich., apartment, alongside pictures of their two children and three grandchildren, illuminated non-medical manuscripts, albums and film, and other memorabilia of their 67 years together.

Although he uses a walker and no longer drives, Peven still returns to Ann Arbor for annual alumni gatherings, where he takes a place of honor at the dean’s table. He has been amazed by the changes to medical education — students set foot in the hospital much earlier, teaching is more organized, and they have more hands-on opportunities. Meanwhile, the specialties and subspecialties have proliferated along with the staggering accumulation of medical knowledge.

Still, Peven says, some things never change.

“Through the years, I’ve attended the white coat ceremonies,” Peven says. “Now that really brings back the memories!”

Photography by Brittany Greeson