University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Surgical Firsts at the U of M, Gold Medals, and Memoirs

It’s Minnesota Alumni’s quarterly books roundup

Minnesota has long been known for its excellent medical care, especially the oft-told tale of the Mayo Medical Center and its eponymous founders (made more famous still by Ken Burns’s 2018 PBS documentary The Mayo Clinic: Faith. Hope. Science). Less well known, but equally vital in the annals of U.S. medicine, is the story of the golden age of University of Minnesota surgery. This period of rapid advances and developments was founded and nurtured by the late Owen Wangensteen (M.D. ’21) and carried on by one of his students, Henry Buchwald, M.D. (M.S. ’66, Ph.D. ’66).

Now in his late 80s and a professor emeritus, Buchwald has written a remembrance of those heady days: Surgical Renaissance in the Heartland: A Memoir of the Wangensteen Era (University of Minnesota Press). Buchwald and his wife Emilie (Ph.D. 71, founder of Milkweed Press), both New Yorkers whose parents had fled the Holocaust, landed in Minneapolis in 1960 so he could begin a surgical residency at the University of Minnesota.

Among the many pleasures of this book for longtime residents are its glancing references to a city now disappeared: the Foshay Tower as the city’s tallest building, the Curtis Hotel, Charlie’s Café Exceptionale. But it is the surgeons and their groundbreaking work that rightly dominate the memoir, and an impressive lineup it is, too. Writes Buchwald: “The foundations of surgery for bowel obstruction, obesity, open-heart procedures, heart transplantation, pancreas transplants for diabetes, intestinal bypass for elevated cholesterol levels, implantable infusion pump therapies, and other landmark procedures originated [at the U of M].”

Alongside Wangensteen march the names and careers of his many protegés, among them the famous Lillehei brothers, C. Walton (B.S. ’39, M.D. ’41) and Richard (M.D. ’51), the former of whom helped develop the first pacemaker and prosthetic heart valve.

Surgery was a white male world back in the 1960s and mostly a WASP one; in the late ’50s, Buchwald reports, he and a friend were “the only Jews on the [Columbia Presbyterian Medical] surgical service, breaking an institutional precedent.” Buchwald recalls he encountered very little prejudice at the University of Minnesota. However, he notes, unbeknownst to them, the suburb of Edina—where he and his wife began renting a home in 1960—was infamous for its restrictive real estate covenants.

Through his 50-plus year career, Buchwald, like all surgeons, became more and more specialized. He writes that when he started out, he operated in the abdomen, chest, head, and neck and extremities, but by the time he retired at age 82, he was strictly a bariatric or obesity surgeon. Regardless of what part of the body he operated on, Buchwald was definitely the kind of surgeon any patient would seek. In his epilogue he writes, “I never took an operation for granted. I never believed there was minor and major surgery; there were only minor and major surgeons.”

Though it is no longer snow season, that shouldn’t stop devoted winter sports fans from devouring Brave Enough (University of Minnesota Press), the memoir of 2018 Olympic cross-country skiing gold medalist Jesse Diggins of Afton, Minnesota. Diggins, along with her journalist coauthor Todd Smith, tells the story of how she, the hyperkinetic child of two outdoorsy parents, rose to become an internationally ranked skier. Along the way, Diggins faced down not just her own training fears and competition demons but the equally real adversary of an eating disorder, which she ultimately conquered with the help of Minnesota’s Emily Program.

For a very different young woman’s memoir, read Miracle Country (Algonquin Books) by Kendra Atleework (M.F.A. ’16). She grew up in the tiny desert town of Swall Meadows, California, in the eastern Sierra Nevadas, with a couple of rebellious siblings and a mother slowly dying from a rare autoimmune disease. Atleework’s poetic memoir beautifully weaves together her own compelling story with the political and natural history of the mysterious dry land she calls home.

Norway couldn’t be more different from the eastern Sierra high desert, but its landscape comes equally alive in Peter Geye’s new novel, Northernmost (Knopf). In his latest offering, Geye (B.A. ’00)—author of the well-received Wintering—weaves together two dramatic family stories, both of which take place in the remote Arctic Circle town of Hammerfest, Norway: that of late 19th century Norwegian Odd Einar Eide, once thought to have been killed by a polar bear, and his American great-great-great granddaughter Greta Nansen, who returns to her ancestral village for reasons even she can’t explain. Epic in scope, Geye’s book brings together two compelling tales of love and survival.

Survival was also difficult for the protagonist of Sheila O’Connor’s unusual novel, Evidence of V: A Novel in Fragments, Facts, and Fictions (Rose Metal Press). O’Connor (B.A. ’82), who teaches writing at Hamline University, was long intrigued by the story of her grandmother. As a Minnesota teenager, that woman—known in the novel as V—was incarcerated for immorality when she became pregnant and was then forced to give up her baby (O’Connor’s mother) for adoption. The author tells her grandmother’s compelling story through a blend of fact and fiction, using family secrets, documents from the era, and a court case file.

Survival is also the compelling theme of The Language Warrior’s Manifesto: How to Keep Our Languages Alive No Matter the Odds (Minnesota Historical Society Press) by Anton Treuer (M.A. ’94, Ph.D. ’97). Treuer, who has an Ojibwe mother and a German father, grew up on northern Minnesota’s Leech Lake Indian Reservation. As a young man, he came to realize that the language of his nation was dying out. Through much hard work, he learned Ojibwe, and today he is a professor of the language at Bemidji State University, as well as the author of more than a dozen books on Indigenous history and language. In his manifesto, he makes a strong case for revitalizing the world’s many dwindling languages (he notes that only 100 of the world’s 6,700 spoken languages are actively and widely taught), writing “Indigenous language is vitally important for Indigenous people … but there’s more at stake. … The rest of the world needs our ideas.”

Lynette Lamb (M.A. ’84) is a Minneapolis writer, book reviewer, and editor.

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