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Midwest medicine



Midwest medicine

Ken Burns’ The Mayo Clinic explores what makes Mayo great, but the hospital has strayed from Catholic roots

What do you get when an agnostic physician meets a Franciscan nun? No joke—the Mayo Clinic. The unlikely partnership between W.W. Mayo and Mother Mary Alfred Moes launched what now ranks as the best medical center in the country.

Inimitable filmmaker Ken Burns tells Mayo Clinic’s story in the documentary The Mayo Clinic, available on Netflix (rated TV-14 for some medically graphic content).

This “miracle in the cornfield” began in 1883 after a devastating tornado tore through Rochester, Minn., 90 miles southeast of Minneapolis, underscoring the need for a local hospital. Mother Alfred challenged W.W., as he was known, to run one if she could raise enough money to build it. In 1889, the hospital opened.

What transpired over the next 130 years became a model for medical centers worldwide. The concept of teamwork—physicians collaborating to diagnose and solve patient problems—made Mayo the paradigm for patient care. Today patients from 150 countries flock to Mayo for help. Every 24 hours Mayo treats 14,000 patients.

Weaving archival footage with interviews, Burns recounts many medical firsts at Mayo, illustrating what can happen when faith and science unite, when patient welfare rises above material gain, and when doctors join forces in research and medical practice. 

W.W.’s physician sons, Will and Charlie, carried on their father’s legacy of putting patients first. Today, Mayo doctors are salaried to safeguard against medical decisions based on monetary gain.

Sadly, however, Mayo Clinic has strayed from its Catholic influence and the sisters’ motto “to treat every patient like Jesus Christ,” although Franciscan sisters still work there. Today Mayo offers both abortions and sex-change therapy and surgery. Mother Alfred would weep.

Burns doesn’t address those philosophical changes, but one segment of the film alerts viewers to them: A Mayo doctor advises a pregnant melanoma patient that her life might be at risk without an “elective termination.”

The woman declines. After more Mayo medical intervention, she regains her health and gives birth to a beautiful baby.


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  • KeithT
    Posted: Fri, 09/27/2019 06:46 pm

    I watched these videos while getting chemotherapy.  It was encouraging to see impressive gains in medical care reaching so, so many people emerge from such humble beginnings.  It's a testimony to God's common grace, even if imperfectly played out over time.  And of course, Ken Burns did a masterful job.  While I don't know if the influence of the nuns was underportrayed, their faith and dedicated service were mentioned often and with admiration rather than being derided or ignored as it typically happens in other historical narratives of our day.