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Ken Burns’ New Documentary Celebrates the Mayo Clinic

PBS film, airing Sept. 25, explores the hospital’s long history of success  

spinner image Doctors perform surgery at the Mayo Clinic
Doctors perform surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Courtesy of Christopher Loren Ewers

The famed filmmaker Ken Burns is known for tackling big American subjects such as the Civil War, the Dust Bowl, the national parks, baseball and Prohibition. His latest documentary, The Mayo Clinic: Faith – Hope – Science, explores a smaller topic: The Mayo Clinic, the prestigious hospital system based in Rochester, Minnesota.

The two-hour special that airs tomorrow night at 9 p.m. ET on PBS offers both the fascinating story of its founding nearly 150 years ago and rise to preeminence, and, less interesting, glowing testimonials to its current excellence.  

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Burns tells us that he chose the Mayo Clinic as a subject because, “I go there now for an annual checkup and was just stunned when I first went there by the level of care, the quality of care, the efficiency of care.” And once he started reading about its history, “it was just flabbergasting.”

No doubt, its history is worth telling. The Mayo Clinic, considered by many to be the best hospital in the country (“which to me means on earth,” Burns notes) began with a Rochester doctor from England named William Mayo and a deadly tornado in 1883. Mayo and his two sons, Will and Charlie, treated dozens of wounded, using the Sisters of Saint Francis’ convent school as a makeshift medical center.

The convent’s Mother Superior reported having “a vision from God” that the sisters should build a hospital. Though Mayo was “an agnostic Darwinian,” according to the film, he worked with the nuns to fund and build that hospital in the cornfields of Minnesota. When it opened as St. Mary’s Hospital in 1889, Will and Charlie, now doctors like their father, steered the institution through its early years, implementing sterilization and cleanliness procedures that were still cutting-edge at the time.

Burns and his team (the film was produced and directed by brothers Erik Ewers and Christopher Loren Ewers) make the case that this and other innovations laid the groundwork for the clinic’s current greatness: All profits were directed into a trust for education, research and patient care, for instance; doctors were put on salary instead of fee-for-service so they wouldn’t be encouraged to order unnecessary tests; and they created a new way to standardize records that was adopted by hospitals around the country.

By 1938 the hospital that's been called “the miracle in a cornfield,” now known as the Mayo Clinic, had treated one million patients.

The film is less compelling when it jumps forward to the hospital’s modern successes, interviewing staff and patients — including the Dalai Lama, who gets checkups there — who sing the Mayo's praises (the hospital's public relations department is surely swooning). An interview with the late John McCain is poignant, however. He says, “They’ve been very straight with me, and that’s important.”

“This wasn’t a valentine,” Burns says, explaining that the hospital gave him and his team complete access with the understanding that “in no way could they affect content.”

His intention was to get those in the health care industry to think: “Wow, these people are doing it right. What can we borrow?”

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And, he says, “It’s just a good story.”

Burns loves a good story. He’s already absorbed in a long list of other projects, including a documentary on country music to air next fall, and a six-hour film on Ernest Hemingway for 2020. He’s also working on a film about Muhammad Ali and is in the early stages of a major exploration of the American Revolution in time for 2025 (not easy, he notes, when there are no photos or video footage to be had).

“And there are about five other films that we’re working on, too,” he adds, happily. “I’m 65 years old and I’m busier than I’ve ever been.”

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