Printed from:
Family Medicine Bids Farewell to a Founding Father, Gayle Stephens, MD

February 28, 2014—G. Gayle Stephens, MD, professor emeritus, University of Alabama at Birmingham, died peacefully at home at age 85 on February 20, 2014 surrounded by his family. Dr Stephens, STFM’s third president and founding president of the STFM Foundation, was instrumental in the creation and evolution of family medicine as a specialty.

Through his practice, teaching, writing, editing, and advocacy, Dr Stephens acted on his belief that “Medicine is a moral vocation that is practiced best when patients have a personal physician who can help them get what they need from the larger system in a manner that does not demean or exploit them, a personal physician who is able and willing to attend to their patients' life experiences and individual preferences."

Born and raised in Ashburn, Missouri, Dr Stephens spent his early years in the Midwest, completing his undergraduate degree at Central College in McPherson, KS. After college he attended the University of Missouri School of Medicine and graduated from Northwestern University Medical School in 1952. After completing a rotating internship at Wesley Hospital in Wichita, KS, in 1953, he entered general practice in Wichita.

Dr Stephens’ interest in medical education began with his leadership of one of the first residencies for the new discipline of family medicine established at Wesley Hospital in 1967, and his appointment as professor and chair of the Department of Family Practice at Wichita State University in 1972. An early activist in medical reform putting renewed emphasis on the patient-doctor relationship, he became the founding dean of the School of Primary Medical Care, University of Alabama in Huntsville in 1973 and later the chair of the Department of Family Practice, University of Alabama at Birmingham, retiring in 1988 as professor emeritus. 

In October 2000, Dr Stephens, along with John Frey, MD, Robert Graham, MD, and Larry Green, MD, served as organizer for the Keystone III Conference. The conference brought together three generations of family medicine leaders: those who entered practice before 1970, between 1970 and 1990, and after 1990. These leaders united in conversation to review the intellectual basis and development of family medicine and promote an intergenerational transfer of ideas, concerns, and aspirations.

"Gayle's prescient and prophetic voice is needed as much now as it was beginning in the late 1960s—not only for family medicine, but also for all American medicine. The torch is now ours," urged Howard Stein, PhD. On a personal note, Dr Stein added, "I can't imagine what my career in family medicine might have been like if it were not for the personal encouragement, friendship, and advocacy that Gayle Stephens gave to me and to my work." 

Dr Stephens extensive body of written work was highlighted in a 2011 Family Medicine article, G Gayle Stephens Festschrift, written by John Geyman, MD. Dr Geyman wrote that Dr Stephens “has been…by far the most original, thoughtful, and eloquent voice in our field and among the few who best represents the mor­al conscience of the entire medical profession. His wide-ranging intel­lect connects us with history, gives context for where we are now, and envisions alternative futures for our specialty, our profession, and society. Truly a renaissance man among us.”

In retirement, Dr Stephens also served as associate editor of the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, he remained active in the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine, and he received the John G. Walsh Founder's Award from the American Academy of Family Physicians. His papers are archived in the Center for the History of Family Medicine in Leawood, KS.

He is survived by his wife, Eula Jean; their children and spouses, Lynn, Joel (Sarah), Scott (Suzanne), Jan Cathcart (Dan), Julie, Ken (Becky), Jean Lehman (Matthew); several grandchildren, and brothers Richard and Charles (Javene).

For those interested in donating in honor of Dr Stephens, the family requests donations be sent to St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Birmingham, AL, or to a charity of the donor’s choice. The STFM Foundation is also accepting donations in memory of Dr Stephens.

Copyright 2018 by Society of Teachers of Family Medicine