Living history

By Lin Lofley

Dr. McClelland in his office
Dr. Robert McClelland

Speaking to an audience of more than 200 people on Sept. 24 at the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas’ West End, Drs. Robert N. McClelland and Ronald C. Jones recounted the events in Trauma Room 1 at Parkland Memorial Hospital on November 22, 1963.

The program was designed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy at Dealey Plaza, and it was part of the Living History series presented by the Sixth Floor Museum, located on the upper floors of the old Texas School Book Depository Building.

With John McCaa, news anchor for WFAA-Channel 8 television, moderating the discussion, they told their stories and answered questions. The event will appear on C-SPAN at a time to be determined.

Dr. McClelland, Professor Emeritus of Surgery at UT Southwestern Medical Center, and Dr. Jones, Chairman of Surgery at Baylor University Medical Center, were among the first doctors trying to save the life of President Kennedy, shot while riding in a motorcade in downtown Dallas. Two days later, in a different Parkland trauma room, the same two doctors tried to save the life of charged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, gunned down by Jack Ruby at police headquarters.

An Assistant Professor of Surgery at the time, Dr. McClelland participated in the treatment of President Kennedy, assisted in the surgery on Gov. John Connally – who had sustained bullet wounds in the assassination, and soon afterward treated the fatally wounded Mr. Oswald.

Asked about the unfolding of events, Dr. McClelland noted that he was teaching when he was told that he was needed in the emergency room.

“I was showing a movie about how to repair a hernia to several of the surgery residents,” he said. “And in the midst of that, I heard a little tap on the door, so I looked, and one of our senior residents motioned me to come out. He told me that they’d been told that they were bringing in President Kennedy from his motorcade, where he had been shot, and they wanted all of the surgery faculty to come down to the emergency room.”

As Dr. McClelland rode the elevator to the emergency room with a colleague, they expressed hope that the wound wasn’t too bad.

And then they stepped into the overcrowded Trauma Room 1.

Sitting in front of a photo of the emergency room, Dr. McClelland told of walking through a crowd of Secret Service and FBI agents, past First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, and of joining the doctors who already were taking care of the President.

Treatment of the President had just begun, and “Dr. Malcolm O. Perry, who was leading our efforts, asked me to go to the head of the cart. He said we’re going to explore the wound and do a tracheostomy,” Dr. McClelland said.

His colleagues, he said, were focusing on the wound in President Kennedy’s neck. When he moved into position, he saw what they could not: A massive head wound at the back of the skull, a wound medical personnel in Trauma Room 1 recognized as fatal.

“The first thing out of my mouth was, ‘My God, have you seen the back of his head? It’s gone.’” Dr. McClelland said. “This was obvious that it was a fatal injury.”

Drs. McClelland and Jones have long been on opposite sides of the debate on the number of times President Kennedy was struck by bullets and from where those bullets might have come, and each laid out his thinking.

Dr. McClelland said he believes that the massive head wound means a bullet was fired from in front of the motorcade – perhaps from behind the famed picket fence – hitting the President above the hairline and exiting out the back of his head. He bases his speculation – “That’s my speculation, and I emphasize ‘speculation.’” – on what he saw watching the famed Abraham Zapruder film.

Dr. Jones, who was Chief Resident in Surgery at the time, and would be part of the surgical team that treated Mr. Oswald less than 48 hours later, said he believes that the ballistics tests conducted later provide authoritative evidence that the fatal bullet came from behind and exploded upon impact with the skull, creating the large wound and the violent jarring of the President’s body.

The bullet wound in the President’s back would probably not have been fatal, they agreed, although the wound to the larynx – likely the exit wound from the bullet that struck the back – was extensive.

On the other hand, the gunshots that killed Mr. Oswald might not have been fatal, Drs. Jones and McClelland agreed, had he not reflexively turned to evade the close-in attack.

“[Mr. Oswald] unfortunately, as probably any of us would, when he saw someone coming at him with a pistol, tried to avoid being shot,” Dr. McClelland said. “So he turned and presented his left side to the weapon. Instead of going from front to back, the bullet went in on the left side and across the back of his abdomen and injured both of the main blood vessels in the body.”

In discussing what his legacy might be in the Kennedy assassination literature, Dr. Jones was philosophical:

“I think you describe what you saw, and I think what you’d like to do is tell them what your participation in it was,” he said. “We can theorize a lot, and that’s OK, but the bottom line is what did you really do? What were the procedures that you performed on this individual, and what did you do with Oswald?”

Dr. McClelland agreed, saying: “All we can say is what we did and what we saw. And if we get off into theorizing about different things, I guess anyone can do that. But we’re no better qualified to do that than anybody else, and maybe not as qualified as some people. I hope that people will think that maybe we functioned reasonably well under the circumstances.”