Obituaries

Dr. Russell Boles Jr., a physician who was a healer of bodies and souls, dies at 96

Dr. Boles was a trustee at New England Baptist Hospital.
Dr. Boles was a trustee at New England Baptist Hospital.

In a life guided by medicine and faith, Dr. Russell Boles Jr. healed bodies and mended souls.

“This was a man who was born to be a physician and care for people,” said Dr. Stephen Camer, a staff surgeon at New England Baptist Hospital.

Dr. Boles, who was 96 when he died Feb. 4 in his Osterville home, only closed his office little more than a year ago. He was long past his heyday as a practicing physician, but some patients still wanted to seek his guidance. And he also made what might be called spiritual rounds.

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“Up until literally a few months ago he had a circuit of phone calls that he would make every single day,” said the Rev. John-Paul Lotz, pastor of the Church of the Redeemer in Osterville, which Dr. Boles attended.

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“He would call more people in the church than I did,” Lotz said. “You’d talk with him and he’d settle your soul. Like a good doctor of the soul, he would ask you questions, getting you to reveal things about your day, about your life.”

He added: “Time stood still when you talked to Russell.”

Affiliated for decades with New England Baptist, Dr. Boles was the doctor of choice for patients from the Kennedy compound on Cape Cod to Mattapan.

“He just loved people and people loved him,” said his daughter Margaret Boles Fitzgerald of Wellesley.

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Though Dr. Boles was a specialist in gastroenterology, at various points in his career he had been a personal physician to John F. Kennedy; the president’s parents, Rose and Joseph Sr.; the president’s daughter, Caroline; heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney; and former Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey.

His close relationships with patients in Roxbury, meanwhile, drew invitations to raise his resonant voice in singing hymns at Twelfth Baptist Church.

To all his patients, regardless of where they lived, Dr. Boles gave of himself far beyond what many physicians offer, and he often did so without compensation.

“He considered sitting at a patient’s bedside, being with patients when they went through something difficult, as something that you did, not something you were paid extra for,” said Camer, a chairman emeritus of New England Baptist’s surgery department. “This was his style of practice.”

Many years ago, some patients even visited the Boles household for dinner, which gave Dr. Boles a chance to glean more insights.

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“He always said the best diagnostic tool that he had as a doctor was taking an extensive history and getting to know his patients well,” said his son, Laird, who lives in Osterville.

Before each evening meal, Laird added, “we’d always say grace. He was such a spiritual man.”

And when dinner was over, “we went into the living room and he sat at the piano and sang hymns and popular music,” Laird said. “It was a joy to be around the piano with Dad, singing and playing songs. He had a beautiful bass voice. He could raise the roof off the house.”

The younger of two siblings, Russell Sage Boles Jr. was born in 1922, the son of Mary McNeely, who owned a catering firm, and Dr. Russell Sage Boles Sr., a well-known gastroenterologist.

He grew up in Penn Valley, in the Main Line suburbs outside Philadelphia, and graduated from the Haverford School, a nearby boys’ prep school.

Along with eventually following his father into gastroenterology, Dr. Boles took up his father’s love of music. Russell Sr. “was a superb classical pianist,” Laird said, and counted among his friends Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Eugene Ormandy.

Like his father, Dr. Boles was a pianist. He performed the Rachmaninoff C-sharp minor prelude for his senior recital at the Haverford School, Laird said, and at Princeton University, Dr. Boles was a founding member of the Nassoons a cappella ensemble.

Attending Princeton in an accelerated program designed to help educate physicians quickly during World War II, Dr. Boles went on to graduate from the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

He served as a Navy medical officer aboard USS Fargo in the Mediterranean. After an internship at Philadelphia General Hospital, and a residency at University of Pennsylvania Medical Hospital, he joined the staff at the Lahey Clinic, where renowned gastroenterologist Dr. Sara Murray Jordan became his most important mentor.

In the decades that followed, the example Dr. Boles set as a physician became a touchstone for many in Boston’s medical community.

“Dad would always say, ‘Pay attention first to the nurses. They do the heavy lifting,’ ” his daughter Margaret said. “He was known for praising and believing in the partnership with nurses.”

Camer was among the physicians who considered Dr. Boles a mentor, “not so much in teaching me medicine, but in teaching me how to be a doctor — how to behave, how to walk the corridors, how to walk into a patient’s room.”

He added that “there are things a doctor does that have nothing to do with medical knowledge. Russell said, ‘Always have a smile on your face when you walk into a room. A patient remembers that.’ ”

During his early years in Boston, Dr. Boles wrote to Leslie Severinghaus, one of his former Haverford teachers who by then had become the headmaster. That letter exchange led Dr. Boles to ask out Severinghaus’s daughter Margaret, a Wellesley College student.

“Their first date was a service at Trinity Church,” their daughter Margaret said, and the couple married a year later, in 1951.

Along with his decades-long private practice, Dr. Boles was a trustee for nearly 20 years at New England Baptist, where a suite of operating rooms was named in his honor in 2011. A $2 million gift from the Yawkey Foundations helped underwrite construction of the suite.

“What a delightful man he was,” James P. Healey, president and treasurer of the Yawkey Foundations, said in an interview. “Russell Boles was a great gastroenterologist, but as great of a physician as he was, he was that much greater of a person.”

In addition to his wife, Margaret, his son, Laird, and his daughter Margaret, Dr. Boles leaves another daughter, Elizabeth Boles Gutterson of Westwood; nine grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Another son, Douglas, died of heart failure in 2000, at 42.

Family and friends will gather to celebrate Dr. Boles’s life at 2 p.m. May 5 in the Church of the Redeemer in Osterville.

Long past when many physicians retire, Dr. Boles kept open his thriving practice.

“When he was 80, he was a vigorous man with a busy office, seeing patients every day,” Camer recalled. “I used to think to myself, ‘I hope I can do that, too, when I reach his age.’ ”

And as Dr. Boles saw fewer patients in his final years, he remained a healer — calling others to offer comfort.

“Toward the end of his life he would tell me with some concern, ‘I just wish I could do more, but I’m so limited,’ ” Lotz said.

As each visit concluded, “he’d say, ‘Let’s spend some time in prayer,’ ” Lotz said. “He prayed humbly, gratefully, and always for others. If he did pray for himself, it was for more wisdom, more understanding, more patience.”

Said Dr. Boles’s son, Laird: “He’s the closest to being a saint of any person I’ve ever known.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.