Critical analysis of classic mistakes in medicine

About the “Witherspoon” Project

Image1The material we write about in the Witherspoon series is very serious. When it ran in our local newspaper it was very popular because, quite frankly, it’s also a fun read. We have this odd juxtaposition of the deadly serious combined with the mirthful in an article series about mistakes in medicine analyzed by a cartoon character.

You’re kidding me, right?

Actually, not at all.

There is an excellent reason for this and the brilliant minds that put together this unusual format did so under desperate circumstances many years ago. It is fitting we give due recognition to the inspiration for our series, the legendary Grandpa Pettibone.

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It’s a fascinating story. In the early days of World War II, the US Navy grew from a few aircraft pilots to thousands, practically overnight. Most were responsible individuals who took their jobs very seriously, but there were those who struggled, shall we say, with doing things by the book. Frustrated by an alarming number of accidents attributed to pilot error, Captain Seth Warner, head of the navy’s Bureau of Flight Statistics, teamed up with a young illustrator, Lieutenant Robert Osborne, and the two created the character Grandpa Pettibone. Described as the “oldest, wisest aviator,” gramps would tell them how to get it right.

Each month, a column in Naval Aviation News magazine reviewed aircraft accidents with an analysis by the old expert. Gramps gave a lively, straightforward, no-nonsense critique of what went wrong and why.

The character was an instant hit. Pilots avidly read the articles not so much to further their awareness of aviation safety, but because they liked the character, the cartoons were wonderfully crafted, and it was fun to read. If they ignored the safety bulletins or the “read and initial” notices, they never tired of Grandpa Pettibone and his colorful commentary. It was pleasure reading but, more importantly, it was educational reading.

As Captain Warner, Lieutenant Osborne, and those who followed in their footsteps discovered, when pilots read the articles, albeit for pleasure, they learned important lessons in a dangerous business they likely would not have learned any other way.

Through the years, editors of Naval Aviation News magazine received letters from pilots who claimed they owed their lives to Grandpa Pettibone. A pilot would find himself in a situation that seemed familiar, recall an article he read, think to do the right thing, and survive. Seth Warner’s idea to promote aviation safety was a huge success. It is still going on today.

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In my former life, I was aircrew in a couple of navy squadrons. My father was a navy fighter pilot, I grew up on air stations, so I had a preference for the ol’ canoe club, as we called it, and enlisted in the navy rather than get drafted into the army. Naval Aviation News magazine was always lying around and I loved reading those articles. When I finished my degrees in college and med school, I noted the exact similarity between a residency M&M conference and the Pettibone articles: a case presentation followed by a critique. It was a perfect format for medicine. I began drawing cartoons, researching medical errors, and came up with a similar character.


Doctor Witherspoon is a clone of Grampaw Pettibone, created for the same purpose: analyze mistakes in a dangerous business in a format that invites participation. It has always been difficult to generate interest in literature about medical errors, quality assurance, safety issues, etc., among health care professionals. It’s not easy reading. It is the same for the aviation industry. Like the pilots, we hope our readers, adept at avoiding the boring stuff, partake of the Witherspoon series for fun. We know, if they do, they’ll learn.


This project is not just for health care professionals, but for our patients, too. My biggest fans were of the general public when it ran in our local newspaper. Everybody can benefit from learning about how things go wrong.

Once again, a crusty old mentor may prevent injuries, perhaps save lives, by providing valuable information in a format that is simply fun to read.

Material is selected for its “lesson(s) to be learned.” Information comes from a variety of sources and, I must say, I, quite frankly, don’t trust any of them. The best I can say about our narratives is that something like this happened but, from a practical standpoint, the articles must be considered fiction, because nobody really knows.

Things happen, these are examples of how they happen, so just read for fun and, hopefully, come away the wiser.

John A. Kona, M.D.

Illustrations on this page are by the legendary artist Robert Osborne, the original illustrator for the Grampaw Pettibone series. I called Naval Aviation News magazine and requested permission to reproduce them and was advised they are United States government images and are free for use by the general public. Regardless, I am grateful for the privilege of reprinting them as they are masterpieces of cartooning and imagination, his work a gold standard.

Google up Grampaw Pettibone and you will be directed to their archives. You will not be disappointed. My favorites are from the 1960’s and 70’s.