, Salem, MA

December 17, 2012

Salem obstetrician loved family, learning, life

By Bethany Bray

---- — SALEM — Matt Kavanagh says his father, Arthur, took his work seriously, but didn’t take himself seriously.

Dr. Arthur Kavanagh Jr., a Salem obstetrician and gynecologic surgeon, died Dec. 8 at the age of 84.

Kavanagh’s family remembers him for his sense of humor and his enthusiasm for everything from his professional career to his grandchildren’s birthday parties to coaching his son’s youth hockey team.

Although Kavanagh could hardly skate himself, he would flood the family’s Chestnut Street backyard in the winter to create an ice rink and run hockey drills, Matt remembered.

“He did not take himself seriously,” Matt said. “He knew how to have fun.”

Kavanagh had an OB/GYN practice at 86 Highland Ave. and delivered more than 4,000 babies at Salem Hospital before retiring in 1995.

He treated all his patients the same — whether they could pay or not — and took the time to make sure each patient fully understood her diagnosis, said his wife, Theresa.

His many patients will remember his penchant for wearing bowties.

A lifelong academic, Kavanagh had a love of learning. He read extensively and even had a collection of books on improving his golf swing.

“He wanted to learn everything,” Theresa said.

He was the type of person who threw himself into everything, his family remembered as they gathered in Salem last week for the funeral.

Arthur and Theresa Kavanagh have five children, Ellen, Timothy, Anne, Matthew and Daniel, and nine grandchildren.

He loved music, dancing, singing, playing golf and badminton with friends.

His children smiled as they remembered their father’s knack for taking interest in “ill-advised activities,” from skiing to leading a group of Chestnut Street neighbors hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

A family boating trip ended with their powerboat taking on water after hitting a rock in Salem Harbor.

He took the whole family horseback riding, despite never having ridden before, and it turned out half of them were allergic, his son, Tim, said.

Kavanagh grew up on May Street in Salem and graduated from St. John’s Prep at age 16. He went on to graduate from Boston College at age 19, Theresa said.

Kavanagh received his master’s in bacteriology at the University of Massachusetts, followed by a master’s of public health in health education from the Harvard School of Public Health.

He then went to the Boston University Medical School, graduating in 1957.

While in medical school, Kavanagh wrote a thesis on ulcerative colitis, a condition that killed his sister, Dorothy, at age 21.

Kavanagh partnered with Drs. John Belock, Richard Ryan and Robert Dale during his career in Salem.

He had an interest in public health, and published two papers that led to prevention of illness and change in the medical field.

His 1963 publication “A Scuba Syndrome” researched respiratory illness among members of the U.S. Navy swimming and dive team.

Kavanagh linked the problem to bacteria in contaminated air hoses, which led to changes in Navy regulations on scuba gear.

Kavanagh also co-authored an article on the use of talc on operating room gloves. A detailed report was made to the FDA, which ultimately led to ending the use of talc, a contaminant, in surgical gloves in 1972.

Two of his grandchildren, Emilie and Andrew Mitten, are studying medicine, following in the footsteps of their grandfather.

“My grandfather was a great role model and he gave me many gifts, including a love of learning and an appreciation of family,” said Emilie, Kavanagh’s oldest grandchild. “(He) was dedicated and generous, and I hope to embody those characteristics in my own medical career.”

Arthur and Theresa Kavanagh were married for 62 years.

Dan Kavanagh said his mother, Theresa, was his father’s “favorite person.”

“At times,” Theresa said, winking.

Bethany Bray can be reached at and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.