Dr. John M. Dennis, a nationally known radiologist and former dean of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, where his career spanned nearly half a century, died Thursday of respiratory failure at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. He was 89.
"This is a very sad day for us," said Dr. E. Albert Reece, vice president for medical affairs for the University of Maryland and dean of the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
"He was someone who spent many years at Maryland, and even in his retirement he continued to attend major events. He was very loyal and continued to be extraordinarily engaged," said Dr. Reece.
"Dr. Dennis played a significant role at the medical school and made contributions to the rise that made it the excellent institution that it is. He made an impact here," he said.
"He was a good friend and colleague and did a great job at the University of Maryland. He was interested in clinics and basic sciences," said Dr. Richard S. Ross, former dean of the Johns Hopkins medical school, who retired the same day as Dr. Dennis in 1990. "He was just one bighearted Eastern Shoreman."
John Murray Dennis was born and raised in Willards on the Eastern Shore. After graduating from Pittsville High School, he enrolled at the University of Maryland, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1943.
He earned his medical degree from the University of Maryland School of Medicine in 1945, and after completing an internship at the medical school, he graduated in 1946 from the Army School of Roentgenology.
From 1946 to 1948, Dr. Dennis served in the Air Force, where he was chief of radiology at the Station Hospital, Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.
In 1948, after being discharged with the rank of captain, he began his radiology residency at the University of Maryland, studying under Dr. Walter Kilby.
He completed a fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania and was certified by the American Board of Radiology in 1951.
Dr. Dennis began his professional career in 1951 at the University of Maryland School of Medicine as an instructor in the radiology department. Two years later, he was named professor and the first full-time chairman of the department, and remained in that position for the next 22 years.
In 1973, Dr. Dennis was appointed acting dean of the medical school and in 1974 was named dean of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, which opened in 1807 and is the fifth-oldest medical school in the country.
Dr. Dennis exhibited a genuine affability and affection for people while bringing his many skills to the operation of a prestigious medical school.
In a 1974 interview with The Baltimore Sun, Dr. Dennis said his priorities were to see that the medical school took "a leadership role in delivery of medical care in the state" and to "build our research facilities to attract star faculty."
"A big, friendly blond-haired, even-tempered man, he is characterized by his peers and superiors as level headed, fair, honest, firm and capable of meeting problems head on and making decisions," said the profile.
Dr. Mordecai P. Blaustein is a professor of physiology and medicine and chairman of the department of physiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
"John was the dean that recruited me in 1979. He was a wonderfully kind and fair-minded man who had a vision for the medical school and built it into a first-class medical institution," said Dr. Blaustein.
"He told me he wanted to rebuild the medical school in a modern image with a great focus on the scientific aspect of medical education," he said. "John was putting his trust in me to recruit new faculty and build the physiology department, which was to have a strong research bent."
Dr. Blaustein said that it was Dr. Dennis' nature to be "very supportive in helping me grow the department. He helped all of the other chairs grow their departments. He listened to people and he loved the University of Maryland, and he wanted to make it a better place, which he did very quietly."
While not one of his early recruits, Dr. Blaustein said his arrival at Maryland coincided with the beginning of a "new era," which he attributed to Dr. Dennis.
"John ushered in many new things that were later built upon by others, and played an enormous role in getting the new Veterans Administration hospital built downtown," he said. "He was an awfully nice guy but could be tough when he had to make difficult decisions."
Another skill that Dr. Dennis possessed, colleagues said, was his ability to bring people together. For many years, he was the leader of Friday afternoon social gatherings that brought medical school faculty and staff together to talk over problems and find common ground and solutions.
During his tenure, the University of Maryland rose to among the top third of medical schools, as measured by research grants. An editorial in The Baltimore Sun at the time of his retirement in 1990 said, "He, more than anyone, is responsible for the construction of a new Veterans Administration hospital on the UMAB campus."
In addition to recruiting top-flight personnel for departmental chairs, Dr. Dennis successfully made the medical school into a major player in the field of bio-medical research, and "managed twice to re-build UM's basic science programs. He took an average medical school and made it better," said the editorial.
Dr. Earl P. Galleher Jr., a retired Baltimore urologist, was a longtime close friend.
"John was such an outstanding and fabulous person. I got to know him when I came up from Duke in 1958 to join the urology department," said Dr. Galleher, who lives in Lutherville. "He and I did a great deal of work together in patient care. He was a man who accomplished a great deal."
Dr. Galleher said he was "extremely kind and well liked by everyone from the residents and staff all the way down to the patients. And he was always very popular with people who had gone to Maryland."
Dr. Dennis had served as president of the American College of Radiology, which awarded him its Gold Medal in 1980. Loyola University Maryland presented him its Andrew White Medal for giving "himself … devotedly to the medical profession."
Dr. Dennis was a longtime active member of the Maryland Club and Baltimore Country Club, where he liked golfing.
"He was also a member of the Monthly Medical Reunion Dinner Club, which was founded in 1881 and is one of the oldest medical dinner clubs in the country," said Dr. Galleher.
For years, Dr. Dennis lived in the Hampton section of Baltimore County, and since 2009 resided at the Blakehurst retirement community in Towson.
In his retirement, Dr. Dennis enjoyed making furniture and became an accomplished watercolorist.
Dr. Dennis was an active communicant of the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.
A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 11 a.m. Monday at Alumni Chapel on the campus of Loyola University Maryland, 4501 N. Charles St.
Surviving are his wife of 65 years, the former Mary Helen France; two sons, the Rev. John M. Dennis of Indianapolis and Patrick F. Dennis of Newnan, Ga.; two daughters, Lori D. Mulligan of the Charlesbrooke neighborhood of Baltimore County and Terry D. Passano of Princeton, N.J.; eight grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.