Marshfield Clinic’s 100-Year Contribution to the Future of Medicine

Circulating Now welcomes guest blogger Rachel V. Stankowski, PhD, scientific research writer at the Marshfield Clinic, located in Marshfield, Wisconsin.  Dr. Stankowski offers a view of the Marshfield clinic on the occasion of its 100th anniversary. 

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and its National Library of Medicine (NLM) are widely recognized as representing the best of the best in biomedical research in the United States. Less well known is how the rise of the NIH is inextricably linked to a medical clinic started 100 years ago by six local physicians in rural Wisconsin.

Founded in 1916, the Marshfield Clinic was novel in its origin as one of the first group practices in a nation full of single-doctor offices. Over the last 100 years, Marshfield Clinic has grown into a premier multi-specialty treatment and research facility with nearly 60 centers located throughout Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Growth of both the Marshfield Clinic and NIH is due in no small part to the efforts of former Wisconsin Congressman Melvin Laird.

Moving from Omaha, Nebraska to Marshfield, Wisconsin with his family in the 1920s, future Congressman Laird found himself tended to and mentored by numerous physicians from the new Marshfield Clinic, including Drs. Stephen Epstein, Ben Lawton, Dean Emanuel, George Magnin, Russell Lewis, and Stanley Custer. This mentorship ultimately instilled in Laird a deep sense of appreciation for frontiers in medical research. When Laird was elected to Congress in 1952, Dr. Epstein urged him toward a role on the Health, Education and Welfare Appropriations subcommittee. Though unglamorous, Laird saw in this committee an opportunity to make a real and lasting impact.

Two men in suits stand talking outside the columned porch of a building with a sign reading National Institutes of Health.
Congressman Laird pauses to chat with Dr. James A. Shannon, Director of the National Institutes of Health, in front of the NIH Administration Building.
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Meanwhile, the Honorable John Fogarty, a Democratic Congressman from Rhode Island, also found himself on the Health, Education and Welfare Appropriations subcommittee. Though seated across the aisle, Laird and Fogarty were fast allies. Laird helped to stoke a fire under Fogarty related to funding for medical research by bringing Fogarty back to Wisconsin for meetings with Marshfield Clinic physicians. After one such meeting, Laird and Fogarty carried the words of Dr. Lawton that would inspire their future work back to Congress: “The future of medicine without research is no future at all.” Making good on their colleague’s pronouncement, Marshfield Clinic researchers met with James Shannon, Director of the NIH, at the invitation of Laird in 1958, which ultimately led to the first two NIH grants awarded to the Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation under the oversight of Drs. Epstein and Emanuel and Fritz Wenzel.

Over the next 15 years, Laird and Fogarty would catalyze an astounding increase in the amount of federal money dedicated to medical research. This led to the rise of the modern NIH, Centers for Disease Control, numerous regional cancer centers, and the NLM. Laird and Fogarty worked tirelessly to maintain a bipartisan partnership unheard of in 21st-century American politics. They campaigned for one another’s reelection and crossed party lines not for personal or political advantage, but for the benefit of medical research. They promoted polio vaccination, smallpox eradication, and treatments for tuberculosis, cancer, mental illness, and a host of other diseases.

A group of men in suits sit outdoors under an American flag.
Congressman Melvin R. Laird was one of the many dignitaries present at the June 12, 1959, groundbreaking ceremony of the new National Library of Medicine on the campus of the National Institutes of Health. From left to right: Health, Education, and Welfare Secretary Arthur S. Flemming, Surgeon General Leroy E. Burney, Dr. Champ Lyons Chairman of the Library’s Board of Regents, and Laird. Read Laird’s reflections on this day and hear the proceedings of ceremony, including Laird’s speech.
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Traveling the world together in search of information and advice about the best use of federal resources for medical research, Laird and Fogarty routinely found themselves back at the Marshfield Clinic. For Laird, there was never any irony in the fact that a medical clinic in rural Wisconsin was the font of such wisdom. Even its creation in 1916 was radical at a time when a skeptical American Medical Association was calling these new group practices “Medical Soviets.” Further growth of Marshfield Clinic, NIH, and other medical research and treatment facilities was due in no small part to the mutual admiration between Laird and the physicians he and Fogarty continued to consult in Marshfield.

The tenure of Laird and Fogarty ended suddenly in 1967 with the death of Fogarty and Laird’s later appointment to serve as Secretary of Defense. This period is still regarded as the golden era for medical research funding. Laird was not finished, however, and continued to promote the training of military doctors, dentists, and nurses from within the Department of Defense. Even in retirement, Laird began fundraising in earnest for the Laird Center for Medical Research, which opened on the campus of the Marshfield Clinic in 1997.

At 94, Laird continues to be an enthusiastic supporter of medical research and believes that future congressional support will be based primarily on two important issues. Namely, does the research reduce healthcare costs and can the results be implemented in a timely fashion? As we embark on the next hundred years, remembering the maxim upon which growth of the Marshfield Clinic and NIH was based will serve us well: The future of medicine without research is no future at all.

Casual indoor portrait of Rachel Stankowski.Rachel V. Stankowski, PhD, is a scientific research writer at the Marshfield Clinic, located in Marshfield, Wisconsin.

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