Francis Gary Cunningham was born in Natchitoches, Louisiana. His father, John Hamilton Cunningham, a 1st Lieutenant in the Army artillery, had been the editor of the Natchitoches Times before enlisting in the service. A few months after his son’s birth in 1944, John Cunningham was sent to Europe and was subsequently killed in the Battle of the Bulge — the last large battle of World War II. Widowed with two young children, his mother, Frances May “Famay” [Fournet] Cunningham took a job as an accountant to support her family.

Following his graduation from St. Mary’s High School, Dr. Cunningham attended Northwestern State College (now University) in Natchitoches where his grandfather, Francis Gary Fournet, had been a professor of math and physics. In 1964, he entered the Louisiana State University School of Medicine in New Orleans, graduating in 1968. Following an internship at Confederate Memorial Medical Center in Shreveport, he did an obstetrics and gynecology residency at Charity Hospital at New Orleans.

There, he attracted the attention of chair, Dr. Abe Mickal. Dr. Mickal approached Dr. Jack Pritchard, about the possibility of Dr. Cunningham doing a fellowship at UT Southwestern. Mickal’s hope, according to Dr. Pritchard, was that Dr. Cunningham would return to New Orleans and one day become department chair. But intrigued with Parkland and Southwestern, Gary Cunningham asked to stay in Dallas. In 1973, he joined the faculty as assistant professor.

Dr. Cunningham took on additional responsibilities at Parkland and in the Department as Dr. Gant (Chair 1976–1983) began grooming him to be his successor. He soon became Director of the Ob/Gyn Residency Training Program at Parkland and was promoted to Associate Professor. In 1981 following his promotion to Professor, Dr. Gant named him Associate Chair for Clinical Affairs and Chief of Obstetrics. And in September 1982, he was appointed as acting/interim chair and Chief of the Division of Obstetrics at Parkland. With the endorsement of Drs. Pritchard and Gant, Gary Cunningham was named permanent chair of Obstetrics and Gynecology in September 1983.

An affable person, Gary Cunningham easily “connected” with people, be they colleagues, patients, or members of the staff. He made a special point of greeting Ob/Gyn employees in the hall, pausing to inquire how they were doing or to convey his sympathy over the loss of a family member. This concern endeared him to the administrative staff and opened lines of communication providing him with grass-roots insight into issues facing the staff — and the Department.

Not one to take himself too seriously, his lab coat was embroidered with the name Dr. Aardvark. No one in the Department took much note; that was just Gary Cunningham. But, this name occasionally led to confusion. A staff member tells of a medical student who approached her one day looking for Dr. Cunningham’s office. When told the room number, the student replied incredulously, “I was just there. The name on that office is Dr. Aardvark.” The staff member explained that Dr. Aardvark and Dr. Cunningham were one and the same; and unamused, the medical student left to find Dr. Cunningham. Dr. Aardvark and other nicknames went by the wayside after Dr. Cunningham became chair. But the friendly persona remained throughout his chairmanship and after, endearing him to all.

An authority on the hematological and hypertensive disorders of pregnancy, Cunningham enjoyed analyzing and “cracking” the difficult case. In his autobiography, Every Life Has A Story And This Is Mine, Dr. Jack Pritchard recounted an incident of a pregnant woman whose blood pressure dropped precipitously after arriving in the emergency room. Hearing what was happening, Dr. Cunningham quickly diagnosed eclampsia (toxemia of pregnancy) plus a ruptured liver. While the general surgeons thought the case was hopeless, thanks to Cunningham’s quick thinking and more than 200 units of blood and blood products plus several surgical procedures, the woman survived the ordeal! 

As chair, Dr. Cunningham continued the practice of his predecessors and covered the obstetrical service at Parkland Memorial Hospital. The lure of administration, if there was one, could not overcome his love of direct patient contact and teaching. He looked forward to his months on service and to clinical studies. Still, he embraced the chairmanship and led the Department out of the recession and into the new millennium with a strong national and international reputation.

No one can assess the performance of a chair like someone who has held the position. Writing in 2001, Dr. Pritchard offered his critique of Dr. Cunningham’s chairmanship. 

“Gary actively teaches, does meaningful research, recruits residents, staff and faculty and tolerates administration. All of these efforts, along with those of his colleagues have helped to maintain the Department of Ob/Gyn at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center as one of the best in the country. Gary continues to demonstrate a vitality that should keep him in office for a long time to come. Let’s not tamper with success!”
Jack A. Pritchard, M.D. from Every Life Has A Story And This Is Mine, p. 76

In spite of his vitality for the job and seeming tolerance of administration, Dr. Cunningham found administration frustrating. The tremendous accomplishments and successes of the past 22 years were dampened by the transfer of the prenatal clinics to Parkland and the move of the Green Center to the Department of Pharmacology. Two signature programs built by Drs. Pritchard and MacDonald and identified with the Department for decades were gone — and calling for new blood with new ideas to take over the reins of the Department, he resigned December 31, 2004. 

After leaving the chair, Dr. Cunningham continued to cover Parkland services, do clinical research, teach, and serve as chief author/editor for Williams Obstetrics, publishing the 22nd (2005), 23rd (2010), and 24th (2014) editions and following those with the 25th silver anniversary edition in 2018. By this time, he had been responsible for eight editions — two more than J. Whitridge Williams who first published the textbook in 1903. Dr. Cunningham continued as chief editor for yet another edition, culminating his legacy with the 26th edition in 2022.

He spearheaded the creation at UT Southwestern of a companion textbook for gynecologists, Williams Gynecology. First published in 2008, the second edition came out in 2012 and the third in 2016. Dr. Cunningham also served as coeditor and contributing author of Chesley’s Hypertensive Disorders in Pregnancy. The fourth edition was published in 2015.

Asked to name one achievement that stood out from others in his career, Dr. Cunningham paused and reflected.

“I’m thinking about Williams Obstetrics. The nine editions for which I’ve been chief editor have been distributed all over the world, in up to 12 languages. Hopefully they have had a positive effect on the quality of obstetrical care in the country and the world, and have contributed to saving the lives of pregnant women and their babies.”
F. Gary Cunningham, M.D.

First endowed in 2016 as a professorship, in 2019, the Distinguished Professorship in Obstetrics and Gynecology in Honor of F. Gary Cunningham, M.D. was established — a fitting tribute to a man who has given so much to his specialty, the Department, and women everywhere.