April 14, 2016

Donovan McCune, MD — A pediatrician who made an impression

The Beagle Press mark (Dr. McCune), from publication 1968

Donovan James McCune, MD (1902–1976) was a beloved Kaiser Permanente pediatrician with a passion for books.

Dr. McCune was physician-in-chief and chief of Pediatrics at the Vallejo Medical Center from 1953 until his retirement from full-time practice in 1966, and subsequently served as staff assistant to The Permanente Medical Group Executive Director Cecil Cutting, MD. Dr. McCune already had established a distinguished international reputation in pediatrics before coming to Kaiser Permanente in 1951, teaching pediatrics at Columbia University for 20 years and receiving numerous medical honors from U.S. and European societies.

Reporter 1963-12
Dr. McCune binding a book, from KP Reporter December, 1963

But books were his extraprofessional passion. He was a noted bibliophile with an extensive collection of rare books, including a page from the Gutenberg Bible (the first book to be printed with movable type), and many other books printed prior to 1500. His collection was donated to the John F. Kennedy Library in Vallejo, where it is housed as a special collection. There it is shared with the public in an unusually open manner:

…The McCune collection…is open to everyone with an interest in books. We encourage a hands-on approach. We recognize that there is a big difference between seeing a book through a glass case and actually holding one in your hand (Clean hands, please!). We recognize that there is a special feeling when one actually handles a rare book and knows the history behind it.

When he retired from TPMG it gave him an English-built Adana Horizontal Quarto printing press. He took lessons from Roger Levenson at The Tamalpais Press. Another fine printer, Henry Morris of The Bird & Bull Press, taught him how to improve his skills and suggested that Dr. McCune would be happier with a bigger press.

Letterpress logo, The Beagle Press, circa 1968

Dr. McCune took Morris’ advice, and imported an Albion hand press manufactured in London in 1852 by Hopkinson & Cope. This six-foot-tall behemoth was 2,000 pounds of iron and steel with a 24 by 28 inch platen. Dr. McCune installed it in his Vallejo, Calif., kitchen, which already housed the Adana press and an inking stand. Dr. McCune only stood 5-foot-6, so he added a platform from which he could bear down on the impression lever.

This year the Book Club of California in downtown San Francisco will honor Dr. McCune with a memorial plaque. Dr. McCune was a long-time member and a contributor to the Club's scholarly newsletter on the history of the book. His special collection in Vallejo contains over 100 Book Club of California publications including many by the Grabhorn Press — which printed a beautiful limited edition of Henry J. Kaiser’s wartime speeches.