Leda Stacy, M.D., pioneer in radiotherapy and gynecology

In 1935 Louis Wilson, M.D. (PATH 1906), director of the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research at Mayo Clinic, described Leda Stacy, M.D. (I ‘1908), as “probably the best woman physician who has ever been on the medical staff of the Mayo Clinic and Mayo Foundation.”

Dr. Stacy was a pioneer in radiotherapy and the first head of a newly organized Section on Gynecology in the Division of Medicine at Mayo Clinic. Originally from the Rochester, Minnesota, area, Dr. Stacy received a medical degree from Rush Medical College in Chicago, Illinois, in 1905 and completed an internship at Children’s Hospital in San Francisco, California – one of only four hospitals in the U.S. that accepted women at the time. She returned to Rochester, where she had a private practice for a year before joining the Mayo Clinic staff in 1908.

In 1957 she wrote a short memoir, “Twenty-Eight Years at the Mayo Clinic.” Her descriptions of the early years at Mayo Clinic and her career are illuminating.

Leda Stacy, M.D., reminisces

“One day in 1908 Dr. William J. Mayo called me to his office and asked me if I would care to join the staff of the firm, as it was known at that time, as an anesthesiologist. I accepted and began my service at Saint Marys Hospital on February 1, 1908. Dr. E. Starr Judd was to have his own operating room at Saint Marys Hospital, but still would assist Dr. C.H. Mayo, whose first assistant he had been. It was thought advisable that a physician be in charge of anesthesia in Dr. Judd’s room.

 I entered under the tutelage of Miss Alice Magaw, anesthetist to Dr. William J. Mayo. It was said that Miss Magaw would ‘talk the patient to sleep’ while the patient was being prepared for operation. I also worked with Miss Florence Henderson, who was anesthetist to Dr. C.H. Mayo and with Mary Hines, another anesthetist. As I said, I became anesthesiologist to Dr. Judd.

Anesthesia was a very simple procedure in those days. Ether was the only general anesthetic agent in use, and it was administered by the drop method over a gauze-covered mask, swathed by a yard or so of soft gauze by which the concentration of either was gauged. The patient’s jaw was held forward by pressure exerted at the angle of the jaw, and the tongue was held down by the anesthetist’s finger in the patient’s mouth – all very simple!

“At this time the members of the firm consisted of Dr. William J. Mayo, Dr. Charles H. Mayo, Dr. A.W. Stinchfield, Dr. Christopher Graham, Dr. E. Starr Judd, Dr. Henry S. Plummer, Dr. Melvin C. Millet and Dr. Gertrude Booker Granger, who did the ophthalmic work. Shortly the organization was changed and became known as the Mayo Clinic. Dr. W.W. Mayo, the father, still made rounds at Saint Marys Hospital and spent much time in the little library adjacent to the small business office at the entrance to the physicians’ offices in the old Masonic Temple building, where the Weber and Judd Company is now located. Dr. Herbert Z. Giffin was added to the staff on July 4, 1906, and Dr. Emil Beckman became a member in 1907.

“The laboratory work, which consisted of examination of blood and urine and of sputum for tubercle baccili, was done in one small laboratory by Daisy Berkman until her marriage to Dr. Henry Plummer. Helen Berkman, her sister, followed in the work until her marriage to Starr Judd. Then Dr. Margaret Smith and Lucretia Steel carried on the work until the laboratory was installed in the 1914 building.

In 1910 I became a member of Dr. Christopher Graham’s section of general medicine.

“… In 1915 Dr. Will, who was always searching for improvements in the treatment of patients coming to the Mayo Clinic, suggested that I investigate the work being done in the East with radium in the treatment of pelvic tumors. I therefore spent some time with Howard A. Kelly, of the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and Dr. Robert Abbe, of Boston, the two men who were doing the most work in this field in America at that time. I returned to the Mayo Clinic from this clinical trip with two tubes of radium element, each containing 50 mg. During the next three years I visited Dr. John G. Clark, of Philadelphia, Dr. Kelly’s radium institute in Baltimore and the Memorial Hospital in New York, and other clinics in which radium was becoming more widely used in gynecology.”

In the course of writing a book about the contributions of women to American radiotherapy, Sarah Donaldson, M.D., professor of radiation oncology at Stanford University Medical Center in Stanford, California, contacted Mayo Clinic about Dr. Stacy. Dr. Donaldson said about Dr. Stacy’s exploration into radium, “Will and Charlie Mayo were anxious to obtain radium, which was in very scarce supply. Through their contacts with Marie Curie, they did succeed in obtaining some radium. But alas, no one at the clinic knew how to use it. The Mayo brothers chose Leda Stacy to go to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, the German Hospital in Philadelphia, and Memorial Hospital in New York to learn how to use the powerful healing rays of radium. Leda Stacy went off on her mission, filled with curiosity, and later returned to the clinic enriched by her new experiences of exploring, probing and learning the use of this new and powerful tool, radium. And in 1915 she became the clinic’s first head of the newly founded Department of Radium Therapy, a department which later would evolve to become the Department of Radiation Oncology.”

“In 1915 the intrauterine use of radium was initiated in the treatment of uterine myomas at the Mayo Clinic, six patients being thus treated during that year. Subsequently, radium was used in this manner for increasing numbers of patients who had myomas of the uterus and menorrhagia. These patients were carefully selected. …

“The development of the use of radium as a therapeutic agent in the Mayo Clinic was closely associated with the evolution of the treatment of cancer of the uterus throughout the country. Most of the patients who came to the clinic in those days for the treatment of this condition presented extensive lesions, considered to be inoperable. Hemorrhage and pain were the symptoms for which the patient sought relief, and the most efficient treatment available at that time was the use of the actual cautery (the Percy cautery). This now seems a very primitive method. …

“I recall that during the first three years of the use of radium in this manner the patients who had cancer of the cervix were treated and cared for at a boardinghouse, and later in what was called the Kahler Hotel at Second Avenue and Center Street, which became the Damon Hotel when the present Kahler Hotel was built in 1921. … Subsequently, all patients who were to undergo treatment with radium were treated at the Worrall Hospital. There was also a period in which the intrauterine treatments for pelvic malignancy were given in the Colonial Hospital, now the Rochester Methodist Hospital. …

“I served as head of the Section of Radium Therapy from 1915 to 1919. In 1918 Dr. Harry H. Bowing came to the Mayo Foundation as a fellow in surgery. In 1919 he was appointed head of the Section of Radium Therapy, and I returned to the section of medicine of which I had been head since 1917. I devoted my time to general diagnosis, with gynecology as a special interest. … Dr. Arthur U. DesJardins, who had entered the Mayo Foundation in 1917 as a fellow in surgery, was appointed head of the Therapeutic Roentgenology in 1920. Subsequently, patients with carcinoma of the pelvic organs received roentgen-ray treatment in addition to treatment with radium or after surgery.

“In 1917 a radon plant was put into operation so that radon seeds and tubes were available. In 1942 the supply of radium, which had been increased considerably … The radon plant is in the Medical Science Building and the locale for the administration of radium is now in the Curie Hospital.

“… in 1917 I was appointed head of a section of general medicine in which there was a particular interest in gynecology. This section eventually became known informally as the ‘Stacy section.’ It came into existence in the following manner.

“By 1917 more and more women were asking that pelvic examinations be done by a woman physician. Dr. E.S. Judd suggested to Dr. Will that I organize a section, composed of women as associates and having both men and women as fellows.

“This section was continued as a unit until September 1, 1935, when I was granted a year’s leave of absence. I resigned from the Mayo Clinic in 1936 to go into private practice in White Plains, New York. In those days few sections were limited to one specialty. Dr. William J. Mayo felt very strongly that members of the staff should not become too specialized, but should be alert to general medical problems. In this way, he thought, they would become good diagnosticians. We who were trained in the clinic at that time have profited greatly by his concept.”

“… Memories of the days at the clinic when the staff was small and more like a family are fast receding now. I think that the factor of intimate association has been partly responsible for the loyalty and devotion to the ideals established by Dr. Will and Dr. Charles. Their abiding wish was that those ideals would always be the goal of the Mayo Clinic, no matter how large or busy it might become.

“A custom established in the very early days of the Mayo Clinic was the staff meeting on Wednesday nights under the chairmanship of Dr. Griffin. … The time allotted to each speaker was only 15 minutes. Dr. W.J. Mayo likened the rambling speaker to the Mississippi steamboat which had to stop moving when it blew its whistle. He often said that a speaker should be able to think and to speak while on his feet. …

“Life at the clinic was much like life in a family when the staff was small. Once in a while there would be a dancing party at Mayowood, where Dr. and Mrs. C.H. Mayo bade the guests goodnight as the orchestra played “Home Sweet Home” at the stroke of 12. There was also a dancing class attending by most members of the clinic. …

“As the work of the Mayo Clinic became known throughout the world, many outstanding surgeons visited the place and often spoke at special meetings or at the staff meetings, giving members of the staff an opportunity to hear and meet these well-known scientists. Thus, one did not feel medically isolated in the little town of Rochester out in the Middle West.”At While Plains Hospital, Dr. Stacy was in charge of the family planning clinic and helped with advice on birth control for those wishing to limit their families. She also helped women who wanted children but were unable to have them due to psychological or anatomical factors.

After practicing 60 years Dr. Stacy retired at the age of 84. According a newspaper account of her retirement party, Dr. Leda stated she was worried because medical schools today were stressing only chemical reactions rather than also taking into account the personal and emotional conditions of the patients. Many young doctors, she claimed, failed to get complete personal histories of patients and often did not give complete physical examinations.

Dr. Stacy died in 1973 and was buried in Rochester.





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