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Dr. Jack Templeton


According to those who know him well, the essence of Jack Templeton, the President and Chairman of the John Templeton Foundation, is to be found in his beloved profession of medicine.

“I’ll always see him as a doctor,” says his daughter, Jennifer Templeton Simpson. “And though he no longer practices, his being a doctor influences everything—the way he views things, the way he handles problems, the way he asks a lot of questions before he says anything. He’s basically an investigative person—one who never gives up when he doesn’t have the answer.”

This perspective translates into “a systematic approach,” in his work for the Foundation, says British physicist and long-time trustee, Russell Stannard, who admires Dr. Templeton’s application of the scientific method to the many subtle and complex issues dealt with by the Foundation.

Jack had been considering a career in surgery since having spent the summer of 1960 working at a Presbyterian medical mission in Cameroon. “I find a definite fascination and personal contact with medicine,” he wrote to his parents from West Africa. “There exists in medicine the chance for intimacy with people.” Yet, surgical operations were, almost by definition, impersonal. “The most important things in the world become those funny little white threads called nerves or those elastic dark tubes known as arteries. You pray to God for the deftness of hand and quickness of decision that may make it possible to put this miraculous organism back together again.”

In medical school and, in particular, surgical rotations later at the Medical College of Virginia, he came to admire and appreciate the methods that physicians had developed to organize and record intricate details about a patient. The pre-operative note, for example, written by the operating surgeon the day before surgery, is a crucial method of communication among different professionals. Composed of a brief statement of the patient’s major symptoms and findings, diagnosis, and planned operative procedure, the note is a conceptually simple tool that requires deep knowledge and systematic thinking. This respect for detail—and the interest in sharing knowledge—has stayed with him ever since, according to colleagues.

“He has a rigorous brain,” says John Schott, M.D., a medical school classmate who is now a trustee of the Foundation. “He loves medicine for many reasons, but one is that it teaches us to look for what is absolutely essential, and to separate the essential from the trivial.” In his Foundation work, Dr. Templeton has steered analysis and funding toward various Big Questions: What are the laws of nature? Is there purpose in the emergence of increasing biological complexity? Can science make new discoveries about human spirituality? What is the genesis of generosity, its manifestations, and its impacts on the giver and recipient? 

Yet his emphasis on rigor is tempered with another principle learned from surgery: stay flexible and adapt to new conditions. “We worked at Children’s Hospital together, so we saw things, many things, that were very difficult to handle,” says his wife, Pina Templeton, M.D., a pediatric anesthesiologist.  Indeed, while working with Dr. Everett Koop in 1974, he embarked on a sub-specialty of evaluating and managing patients with conjoined twinning. “Every aspect was complex,” Pina Templeton notes. “It can be very problematic to anesthetize conjoined twins, because you have to respect both of them, each as a separate individual patient. Jack had so many difficult cases that the hospital had a dictum: when a very hard case was admitted, we would say, ‘that’s a Jack patient.’”

“Jack never lost his compassion, never objectified the patient,” recalls Dr. Schott. “You have to make life and death decisions within a short period of time and often without enough information. That’s why medicine is a calling, and not just a job. And Jack’s seeking nature, his interest in purpose, his grappling with the Big Questions—all made him a superb doctor and now make him the best possible head of the Foundation.”

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