Echocardiography pioneer Greene endows directorshipby Tom Wilemon Feb. 1, 2018, 9:16 AM
His hands have flickered across saxophones, guided airplanes and held stethoscopes.
With a nimble skill set and a steady demeanor, R. Glenn Greene, MD, excelled in careers that others just dream of pursuing. He was a union musician before graduating college, a physician who helped pioneer echocardiography and a commercial pilot.
He made the most of his free time, scuba diving in oceans around the world and cruising his motorcycle along back-road routes to Florida.
Now retired, he continues to be a supporter of Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC), the place where he began his medical career. He’s the namesake of the Glenn Greene Lectureship, which was established in 2009. More recently, he and his wife, Virginia, committed to both a lifetime gift and a bequest to support an endowed directorship at VUMC.
“I still keep up with medicine pretty well,” said Greene, who graduated from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine (VUSM) in 1954 and then did his internal medicine residency at VUMC.
He grew up less than five miles southwest of the Vanderbilt campus in the Woodmont Estates neighborhood, attending Montgomery Bell Academy and then Vanderbilt for his undergraduate degree.
“There were a bunch of physicians in my family, uncles and cousins,” he said. “I always wanted to be a physician from 5 or 6 on up.”
It was a career that both he and his sister, Helen Proos, MD, would pursue. He became an internist. Proos, who died in 2015, became a psychiatrist.
His parents, Albert Reams Greene and Annie Lois Greene, encouraged his interest in music, starting with piano lessons when he was 6 years old. He mastered the piano, the clarinet and the saxophone. By the time he was a young man in college, he was playing in a Dixieland jazz band called the Stardusters. The band had gigs throughout Middle Tennessee, including The Palms in Brentwood and the Colonial Dinner Club, a popular nightspot in the 1940s and 1950s that was on Harding Road.
The ownership of the Colonial Dinner Club also had the Casino Royale in New Orleans and the Silver Slipper in Memphis, where they brought in rotating bands and orchestras, according to an article in the June 8, 1946, issue of The Billboard magazine.
It was the type of venue where you had to have a union card to play, so Greene got one to play the saxophone there, but he also loved the clarinet. People told him he had a sound like Benny Goodman’s, he said.
When he began medical school, he dropped the late-night gigs so he could better focus on his studies. After graduating from medical school and completing his residency at VUMC, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. A doctors’ draft that had been instituted because of a shortage of physicians during the Korean War was still in place.
He served from 1957 to 1959 at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. He was serving at the base in 1958 when the famous clip of Elvis Presley receiving his military haircut was filmed there.
Greene served in the medical corps, which introduced him to aviation. He obtained a private pilot’s license, a commercial license, an instrument license and an airline transport license.
The slower pace of life in Arkansas appealed to Greene, so after finishing his sixth year of medical training at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis he decided to practice in Owensboro, Kentucky.
He kept abreast of the latest innovations in medicine, flying down from Owensboro to sit in on Medical Grand Rounds lectures at VUMC, a 35-minute flight he usually made on Thursdays. He kept a car at the Nashville airport.
“That was fun,” Greene said. “I knew most of the fellows in cardiology all those years. Who got me started reading echocardiography was ‘Bud’ Friesinger (Gottlieb C. Friesinger II, MD) who was really the father of cardiology at Vanderbilt. I would read with Drs. Ben Byrd and Rose Marie Robertson every Thursday.”
Greene was at the forefront, said Byrd, professor of Cardiovascular Medicine.
“He was an expert echocardiographer,” Byrd said. “He did not have formal cardiology training, but when he came through not many people did cardiology training. It was a big point of Dr. Friesinger’s that echocardiography was not something that you had to be a cardiologist to understand and practice well.”
Greene read echocardiograms with Robertson until she left Vanderbilt in 2003 to become chief science and medical officer of the American Heart Association. He and Byrd began working together and became friends when Byrd joined the faculty in 1984.
“Glenn has had an amazing career,” Byrd said. “He is absolutely the perfect example of a Vanderbilt Medical School graduate who has been such a great supporter of the Medical Center, the Medical School and the University. He has been the go-to internist in Owensboro for many years.”
The directorship that he and his wife are endowing will help ensure that VUMC continues to intensively mentor clinicians about the latest innovations in cardiac imaging and diagnostic tools.
Now that he’s no longer flying airplanes or seeing patients, Greene devotes his time to teaching Sunday school at his church in Owensboro or spending time with his wife, Virginia, his daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“He is a very humble person,” said Thomas Wang, MD, Gottlieb C. Friesinger II Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine. “I think his humility comes across in his sense of humor. He can be very self-deprecating. He is really one of the most unassuming, yet impressive, people that you will ever meet.”