A doctor with the heart of an adventurer

Dr. John Levinson’s study in Rockland is stuffed with mementos of his life: carvings and decorations from his time volunteering in Vietnam; ivory from his adventures to the poles; paintings depicting one of the most remote places on earth, the south Atlantic Ocean’s Bouvet Island — the one place he says he has never been.

The 81-year-old Atlantic City native said that when he was in high school during World War II, he wanted to be a sailor.

“Like most every kid I knew at that age, we all wanted to join the service,” he said. But at 16 his parents thought he was too young, and so he spent a year at Lafayette College. Just before his eighteenth birthday, he joined the Navy and became a pharmacist’s mate.

“I always wanted to go to the South Pacific, [but I] never got any place,” he said. “I spent most of my time at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital.”

After the war, Levinson, who said he had already been considering a career in medicine, finished college and attended Jefferson Medical School.

His specialty was obstetrics and gynecology, and he set up a private practice in Wilmington.

Medicine in Vietnam

In 1963, he volunteered to join a medical aid trip to Vietnam, to the relatively unknown city of Saigon.

“My friends thought I was completely out of my mind,” he said. “’Pay a nurse, pay a secretary while you’re away, and you paid your own money to go there?’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I want to see some real sick people and I want to see that part of the world.’“ So, in the early years of the Vietnam War, Levinson flew across the world to the ravaged but beautiful country.

“I became addicted to the place,” he said. But the horrors he faced in the dirty, undersupplied hospitals of Saigon stayed with him.

When he returned to Delaware, he called up Sen. John J. Williams. The senator had him come to Washington and testify before the Foreign Relations committee about the abominable conditions of Saigon’s hospitals.

“I decided that a lot of people wanted to hear about this place,” he said. Soon after, he created Aid for International Medicine, a nonprofit organization that helped Third World nations obtain medicine, textbooks and training.

“The first $50 I got I used to buy one ton of rice,” Levinson said. “Can you imagine that, for 50 bucks?”

Levinson was a savvy scrounger; when he heard that Wilmington Hospital was throwing away four functional incubators because a newer model had been released, he rushed over and took the devices for shipment to Vietnam. And the shipment was free for AIM; volunteers would transport food and supplies to the air base, where the military would provide crates on planes headed to Vietnam. Once there, more volunteers would disperse the goods.

“We ended up doing about $9 million worth of work over 42 years,” he said. AIM shut down about one and a half years ago.

Traveling with a Kennedy

Then, in 1967, Levinson received a call from Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, asking him to testify further for Congress. Afterward, Kennedy asked Levinson to accompany him on a trip to Vietnam as a war casualties specialist.

Levinson credits Kennedy with saving his life on at least three occasions. The senator would routinely change his mind about the itinerary — something Levinson said frustrated their military guardians. For example, at one point Kennedy decided to take an alternate route to avoid the press; later, the group discovered that the original route had been laced with claymore mines.

“You hear a lot of strange things about the Kennedys, but I’ll tell you: Kennedy never forgets a friend,” Levinson said.

Levinson cited a note Kennedy sent him upon his return from a medical mission to Afghanistan. The note contained $400 and read, “John, Put the money toward the cause. Glad you’re back. Ted.”

“Kennedy and I have remained good friends,” Levinson said. “Working with him was very special.”

The Explorers Club

In 1985, Levinson was elected the President of the Explorers Club, a group dedicated to promoting exploration and the pursuit of knowledge. The Club membership includes polar explorers Robert Peary and Ernest Shackleton, aviator Chuck Yeager, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, and anthropologist Jane Goodall.

Levinson, though, objects to the term “explorer.”

“I’m not an explorer,” he said. “I’m a physician and an adventurer.”

Levinson decided to retire from private practice after his election, partially because of the job and partially because his three children were grown. He served as president for two years.

One of Levinson’s favorite memories from his tenure involves Robert Ballard, the oceanographer who discovered the wreckage of the Titanic in 1985.

“The whole world was thrilled when Bob found the Titanic,” Levinson said. As the Explorers Club representative, Levinson greeted Ballard upon his return and presented him with a plaque Levinson himself designed. The plaque commemorated the ship’s dead and asked that the artifacts remain on board as a memorial. Ballard placed it on the Titanic’s stern, but the plaque has since gone missing.

Levinson also recalled a dinner at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel at which zoologist Jim Fowler was speaking while holding a falcon. Journalist Lowell Thomas was sitting next to the podium when the bird, Levinson said, “let go.” Fowler quickly twisted his arm, and the droppings narrowly missed Thomas.

Thomas was next to speak. He turned to the audience and wryly said, “In years to come, when they ask where was my closest call, I will say, with the Explorers, at the Waldorf.”

Levinson said his time with the Explorers Club was fulfilling.

“I met some fascinating people, had some wonderful experiences through the club,” he said.

After retirement

Levinson has slowed down a bit since his retirement in 1986. He spent some time traveling with his wife, Carlie, but he says those days are behind him.

Fortunately, Levinson still has his sense of humor. “My handwriting has gotten so bad, I say I should go back into practice,” he said, laughing.

He said he spends much of his time reading and relaxing. “The puttering is fun,” he said.

Ultimately, he said many of his most memorable experiences have been happy accidents.

“I can look back and say, ‘Serendipity has been my code,’” he said. “I mean, how exciting a life can you have?”

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