Innovative and dedicated: Dr. Harry Neel

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 11, 2002

Tuesday, May 14, won’t be just another ordinary day in Albert Lea. It’s been proclaimed Dr. Harry Neel Day in honor of the 96th birthday of one of the community’s most distinguished citizens.

Neel was honored Friday with a proclamation, signed by Mayor Bob Haukoos, at the Albert Lea Rotary Club meeting. A reception, hosted by his son, Dr. H. Bryan Neel and family, followed.

A steady stream of former patients, fellow physicians, nurses and friends turned out for the reception.

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Neel was born in Daytona, Fla., in 1906. His family moved to North Carolina in 1908. He was the first Boy Scout to become an Eagle Scout in his community of Greensboro, N.C. He graduated from Washington and Lee University in 1928 and attended medical school at Johns Hopkins Hospital, then was encouraged to apply for a fellowship, training in surgery at Mayo.

Nurse Harriet Kaufmann worked with Neel at the medical and surgical clinic in Albert Lea which he helped found in 1940.

“He never lost his temper,” Kaufmann recalled of Neel. “He always had the neatest penmanship. I could always read his orders.”

She also testified to his abilities as a surgeon. “He did surgery on my mother and she got along great. He was a wonderful doctor.”

His early years with the group were interrupted by four years in the Naval Medical Corps, where he gained extensive experience as a military surgeon the South Pacific and learned new techniques at Bethesda Naval Hospital.

He returned in Albert Lea in 1946, and the partnership there grew and evolved into the Albert Lea Medical and Surgical Center. It later became the Albert Lea Regional Medical Group, and today is Albert Lea Clinic – part of Mayo Health System.

Neel was the first board-certified surgeon in southern Minnesota outside the Mayo Clinic, a pioneer in Minnesota, and the 719th candidate to be certified by the American Board of Surgery.

He introduced sodium pentathol to his operating rooms shortly after it was used for the first time at the Mayo Clinic, he recruited a surgical pathologist from the Mayo Graduate School of Medicine to introduce frozen section techniques to the pathology lab of Naeve Hospital, and after taking several courses, he introduced modern respiratory therapy and a large number of other modern surgical support services to Naeve.

Neel’s practice encompassed the entire breadth of the specialties, including general abdominal, endocrine, colon and rectal, urology, orthopedics, gynecology and pediatric surgery.

Dr. Bryan Neel said his father was truly a lifelong student. “Most every day was an 18-hour day for him,” the younger Neel said. After putting in a full day at the hospital and clinic, he’d join his family for dinner, then return to the hospital to talk to his patients.

“If it wasn’t a routine procedure, he’d come back home and pour over anatomy books in the library until 2 a.m.,” Bryan Neel said. “He’d seen everything, but he wanted to make the procedure as comfortable for the patient as possible.”

The surgeon was on call 100 percent of the time, his son said. If the doctor in Frost called in the middle of the night with a patient with appendicitis, he’d tell the doctor to meet him at the hospital with the patient.

“Then he’d begin his own list at 7 a.m.,” Bryan Neel said. “He was tireless. He continued to make house calls even after doctors had stopped making house calls.”

He still gets calls today from people asking about a procedure their doctor has planned for them, and even insurance issues, his son said.

After Neel’s retirement from the clinic in Albert Lea, he practiced with the Virnig Brothers in Wells from 1978 to 1983, when he retired.

Neel said many of the advances in surgical techniques have occurred since he retired — laparascopic surgery, CAT and MRI scans. And surgeons today are much more specialized than when he practiced, he said.

Since his retirement, Neel has remained a voracious reader, not only of medical journals, but also American history. “He loves American history, and is a great American,” Bryan Neel said.

The retired surgeon takes a lot of pride in his family. H. Bryan Neel is an ear, nose and throat specialist at the Mayo Clinic and also serves as a regent for the University of Minnesota. His daughter, Maja, is a graduate of Cornell University and lives in New York.

A granddaughter, Maya Lundstrom Rudolf, has followed in his footsteps and graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical School.

Of having a special day proclaimed in his honor, Neel said, “It’s an honorary thing. But it’s pretty neat.”