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Father of the Mayo Alumni Association – Harold Foss, M.D. (S 1915)

A reminiscent tribute to Harold Foss

Originally published in The Mayo Alumnus, January 1968

When it comes time to make final summary of a man, there is solace for family and friends when the life was long, full, and meaningful. Harold Leighton Foss, organizer and emeritus chief of staff of the medial institution which has evolved into Geisinger Medical Center, lived such a life. And of all the many tributes paid him, none would have pleased him more than the simple 12-word summary of a friend: “He was a Doctor Will kind of man. He got things done.”

He was, and he did. Doctor Foss – “father” of the Mayo Alumni Association – consciously patterned the course of his own professional life and that of his institution on the example of his former teacher and friend, the elder Mayo brother.

Harold Foss was born in 1883 at Malden, Massachusetts. From childhood he loved boats; an early one was an18-foot dory built with his father’s help. An early interest in machines turned in the direction of “the much more interesting and complex human body.” Increasingly sure he wanted to be a surgeon, he began, unchallenged, as a high school student to follow young medics into Massachusetts General Hospital for Saturday mornings of watching Harvard’s surgical greats at work. (“Amputations never bothered me,” he confessed last summer in an interview, “but I fainted once watching cataract surgery. I w

He received the M.D. in 1909 from Jefferson Medical College, interned at Philadelphia General, took graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania. Exhausted after years of grinding work, tired of routine, restless, he accepted an offer to become physician at Candle, Alaska, 200 miles north of Nome.

His practice among the miners – in a sod-banked shack that may have been the northernmost “hospital” anywhere at that time – ranged through gunshot wounds, frostbite, typhoid, tuberculosis, pneumonia, fractures, perforated ulcers.

An indignant concern for the neglected Eskimos (“endowed by whalers and minors with loathsome diseases against which they had not natural immunity”) kept him at Candle for most of a second year. He returned Stateside with magnificent photographs of the people and the land, robustly revived health (“I could trot behind a dog team for 30 miles at 20 below, and I slept outdoors in a parka an Eskimo patient made for me when it was 50 below”). More important, he was now certain he wished to be a surgeon.

Young Doctor Foss entered the Mayo Clinic (there was then no Graduate School of Medicine) in December of 1913, as a fellow in surgery. Then, as so often later, he demonstrated both a prodigious capacity for work and a precise knowledge of what he wanted and how to get it. During his eight months of “general medical and surgical diagnosis” and fourteen months of actual surgical training, he also made 16 trips to Danville, Pennsylvania.

Danville, in the lovely Susquehanna Valley, was and is a small industrial center. Here, in the years before World War I, a frugal widow named Mrs. George F. Geisinger conceived the idea of honoring her husband’s memory by building a first-rate hospital. A surgeon at Philadelphia General, asked to suggest a physician to take charge, recommended Harold Foss.

Doctor Foss insisted “the hospital’s staff be a full-time one, gradually built up of doctors selected on the basis of experience and of a temperament suggesting that they were men of promise who would work successfully in a closely knit group. My cue was taken from the practice at the Mayo Clinic, whose methods I was closely studying while receiving my training.”

At Danville in the earliest years, Doctor Foss “cared for the typhoid patients, delivered the babies, and performed all manner of surgical procedures. On other occasions I helped drive the ambulance, experimented with the electric light plant, fluoroscoped stomachs and colons, met with the Board, engaged new help, ordered supplies – a fantastic job beset with multitudinous problems, headaches, and some heartaches.”

Despite his many commitments, Doctor Foss throughout his life found time for the closest of relations with the Mayo Clinic and with the many members of its staff who were his friends. An early Rochester record notes, for example, that with the strong backing of W. J. Mayo: “At a regular Wednesday night meeting of the staff of the Mayo Clinic in July, 1915, a plan was presented by Dr. Harold L. Foss for the formation of an association composed of the members of the Mayo Clinic staff and of physicians who, having served at least one year at Rochester, are now practicing in other parts of the country. The scheme outlined was freely discussed by Dr. Charles H. Mayo and others and was approved generally.”

A committee then drafted a constitution for this “Association of Resident and Ex-Resident Physicians of the Mayo Clinic.” Harold Foss was its first president.

Doctor Foss’s surgical and related achievements are part of medical history; his election as president of the American College of Surgeons testifies to the respect in which he was held by his peers. The Geisinger Medical Center is an enduring and growing monument to him.

Additionally, with Mrs. Foss (“the most beautiful woman I have ever known”), he also found time to enjoy things other than professional.

“Hating guns and loving the outdoors,” he owned many boats. Until recent years he flew his own plane (for years a granddaughter, in teasing reference to his love of flying, called him “Roger”).

Typically, near 80, he became hopelessly “hooked” on golf.

In last summer’s interview, he explained that “after retirement, with the first tee of a fine golf course within five minutes of my home, I called the professional about lessons. I woke up that night thinking, “You damned fool, playing golf at your age!” So I cancelled the lesson. But a year later I tried; now, I’ve taken lessons all over the country, spent a fortune on the game. I’ve got every book ever written about it – and the pros are all wrong, by the way. There are five or six fundamentals. All the rest is nonsense.”

With the zest of a very young man, Doctor Foss smiled.

“Do you know what’s going to be the title of my last paper? ‘Golf Pros I have Met.” No. That will be second to last. The last one will be “Golf for the Senile.’”

Hearing of his death last August and remembering the conversation, we became curious to know what Dr. Foss’s very first paper was. There was something somehow altogether fitting to find it had appeared in 1915 in Modern Hospital, and was titled; “The George F. Geisinger Memorial Hospital.”

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