Dr. John Joseph Shea, Jr., died peacefully at home from respiratory illness on Sunday, February 8th, 2015, surrounded by his large and loving family. He and his wife, Lynda Mead Shea, had recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. He was born in Memphis on September 4, 1924, the third of six children, to Dr. John Joseph Shea Sr. and Catharine Flanagan Shea. He graduated from Christian Brothers High School and then attended the University of Notre Dame. He was admitted to Harvard Medical School at age 19 and completed his training at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. In a medical career that lasted more than 60 years, Shea revolutionized the treatment of deafness, restored hearing to tens of thousands of patients, and helped establish Memphis as a world-renowned medical center.
Dr. Shea had great reverence for his father, an eminent ear, nose, and throat specialist. He followed his father into medicine but narrowed his focus to otology – the study of the ear. In 1954, Shea went to Vienna and studied manuscripts written in German in the 19th century about otosclerosis, a disease that causes progressive stiffening of the stapes, the tiny stirrup bone in the middle ear, and results in hearing loss. Surgical attempts to correct the problem had been abandoned and condemned by the medical establishment over fifty years earlier. While in Vienna, Shea developed the idea for an artificial stapes, which he used to replace the diseased one, in a procedure he called “stapedectomy”. Upon returning to the United States, he enlisted the help of a young engineer and designed the world’s first prosthetic stapes. Shea performed the first stapedectomy on a woman with otosclerosis in May, 1956. The operation was a success and the woman regained her hearing. Others followed. Shea presented his results to a skeptical medical community, and was initially criticized as reckless and dangerous. Eventually, the procedure came to be embraced as the definitive surgical treatment for otosclerosis. It is now performed and taught worldwide. Shea continued to innovate in otology for the rest of his career. When Shea retired in 2011, he had operated on more than 50,000 patients. Shea’s accomplishments, awards, and honors are too numerous to list. Among them are induction into the Royal Society of Medicine (England) in 1959. In September of 1962 he was on the cover of Life Magazine as one of “The Take-Over Generation: One Hundred of the Most Important Men and Women in the United States”. In 1967, Shea moved his practice into the Memphis Eye and Ear Hospital at 1060 Madison Avenue. Anticipating the trend toward outpatient surgery, Dr. Shea built the present-day Shea Clinic at 6133 Poplar Pike in 1985. The Shea Clinic was the first outpatient surgical center licensed in the state of Tennessee.
Dr. Shea’s love for medicine was exceeded only by his generosity and love for his family and church. He is survived by his wife of fifty years, Lynda Mead Shea and five children: Dr. John Joseph Shea III, Gwyn Rainer Shea Canarios (Mike), Dr. Paul Flanagan Shea (Jessica), Susanna Mead Shea, and Peter Ryan Shea, seven grandchildren, Avery Huffman (Tim), John J. Shea IV, Matthew Shea, Rainer Shea, Emily Shea, Gwyn Fisher, and Phillip Allan Fisher IV (Penelope), and three great grandchildren, Anna, Jackson, and Sophia Huffman. His five siblings included Jeanne Leatherman, Catharine Roberts, Ellen Thompson, Mary Dixon, and Martin F. Shea. He is survived by Catharine, Mary, and Martin. He was a member of the Memphis Country Club and the Memphis Hunt and Polo Club.
Dr. Shea, a devout Catholic, will be remembered by tens of thousands of patients whose lives he touched. His contributions to otology and the treatment of deafness survive him. He was a force of nature, a pioneer in medicine, a beloved husband, father, and family man.
Visitation will be at Canale Funeral Directors at 2700 Union Avenue Extended, Memphis, from 5:30 PM to 7:30 PM on Friday, February 13th, 2015. Funeral services will be at St. Peter Catholic Church, 190 Adams Avenue, Memphis, where Dr. Shea was a parishioner, at 11:00 AM on Saturday, February 14th, 2015. Please send memorials to the Missionaries of Charity, 700 North 7th Street, Memphis, TN, 38107.