John V. “Ian” Nixon, M.D.
On a rugby playing field, there’s just one referee. There are 30 players of varying sizes and strengths. But just one man, carrying a whistle, charged with making sure the game is played according to the sport’s laws. That’s right. Not rules. Laws.
It’s a role in which John V. “Ian” Nixon, M.D., excelled. So much so, in fact, that he was inducted into the U.S. Rugby Hall of Fame this summer.
For more than a decade, Nixon traveled the world refereeing dozens of high-profile international match-ups. He was America’s first international referee and, at his retirement in 1987, the country’s highest ranking – a position he held for seven years running.
Nixon never looked to be recognized in this way and, while he counts it an honor that his Hall of Fame election was voted on by respected colleagues, he says, “The memories are what count. That and your enjoyment of it.”
His love of the game got its start in his native England. He caught his first rugby pass when he was eight and went on to play for nearly 30 years, earning the position of scrumhalf, akin to the quarterback in football.
Throughout his playing and refereeing days, he was always very strict about sending players with serious bleeding cuts to the sidelines, and he’d re-set the occasional dislocated finger. But few on the field knew he was a physician.
In 1972, he immigrated to the United States, securing a residency at Worcester City Hospital in Massachusetts and later a prestigious cardiology fellowship at Harvard Medical School and the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. There he trained with Richard Gorlin, M.D., famed for developing a formula still considered the gold standard for evaluating the severity of valve stenosis.
While in Boston, he became interested in echocardiography. Then in its infancy, the non-invasive technology held the potential to give cardiologists a moving picture of the heart. In 1974, he was recruited by the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center to bring that potential to Dallas, where he could continue his fellowship training. Echocardiography would be the cornerstone of his career, first in Dallas and later at VCU. Over the past 40 years, he says, “the technology has grown more sophisticated and more common.” When he arrived on the MCV Campus in 1986, the hospital did 1,450 procedures a year. Now it’s up to 12,000.
His affinity for sports didn’t end on the rugby field. He’s known for his book chapter The Athlete’s Heart published in the textbook “Current Diagnosis & Treatment in Cardiology,” and he’s conducted studies on heart function in athletes. Findings from those and other studies have resulted in the publication of more than 130 original papers, book chapters and review articles, and he’s presented more than 170 abstracts at international, national and regional scientific meetings.
He may be best known as the two-time editor of “The AHA Clinical Cardiac Consult Book.” Nixon describes it as a cardiac textbook for the non-cardiologist with its fast, reliable guidance on the diagnosis and management of cardiovascular problems. His stellar work on the project, first in 2006 and again in 2011, resulted last year in the American Heart Association recognizing him with its Award of Meritorious Achievement.
Today a professor of internal medicine and director of Cardiovascular Imaging and Noninvasive Cardiology, Nixon says he still calls on skills he learned on the rugby field. As a referee, he prided himself on his game and player management, developing a rapport with the teams that he could use to defuse conflict.
He was known for his deft management of people under stress. “It’s two 40-minute halves of continuous play. The physiological demands are enormously high.” He compares it to managing medical personnel in critical situations: “When they are exhausted, fuses are shorter, concentration is more fixed.”
Those skills paved the way for Nixon’s Hall of Fame election. Nixon is among just the third class of inductees. His level of service to the sport sets him apart, having also served two terms as president of the United States of America Rugby Football Union.
Now he limits his involvement to that of spectator. He’s eagerly anticipating the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. After all, he points out, the USA has to defend the Olympic gold it won the last time rugby was played. In the Paris Olympics, back in 1924.
MCV’s Rugby Roster
We don’t have enough to field a 15-man team, but we could almost manage a seven-a-side squad, like those that will play in the 2016 Olympics.
John Duval, MBA, FACHE, chief executive officer of MCV Hospitals, VCU Health Systems, played two positions: prop forward (front row) and lock (second row) for University of California Irvine RFC ‘74-‘76; Irvine Coast RFC ‘76-‘77; Long Island RFC ‘77-‘78; Irvine Coast RFC ‘78-‘82; Southern California Rugby Referee Society ‘82-‘85
Martin Graham, M.D., professor of pediatrics, biochemistry and physiology, and chief, Division of Gastroenterology and Nutrition, played hooker for Prince Edward High School 1st XV ‘66, ‘67, Salisbury, Rhodesia; Rhodesian Schoolboys, Craven Week, Pretoria, South Africa ‘67; University of Capetown ‘68-‘72
John V. “Ian” Nixon, M.D., professor of internal medicine and director of Cardiovascular Imaging and Noninvasive Cardiology, played scrumhalf for University of Manchester, England ‘59-‘65; Heaton Moor RFC, Stockport England ‘65-‘71; Boston RFC ‘72-‘74; Dallas Harlequins RFC ‘74-‘76
Jerry Strauss, M.D., Ph.D., dean of the School of Medicine and executive vice president for medical affairs, VCU Health System, played lock for Brown University, ‘67-‘69