Harry Neel

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 24, 2009

Dr. Harry B. Neel, M.D., died on Oct. 21, 2009, from complications of a fractured hip. He was born in Daytona, Fla., on May 14, 1906, and raised in Greensboro, N.C. He is a graduate (Magna Cum Laude) of Washington and Lee University and the Johns Hopkins Medical School. Subsequently he worked as an intern at the Johns Hopkins Hospital and as a medical officer for the Civilian Conservation Corps. From 1936-1940 he was a fellow (resident) in surgery at the Mayo Graduate School of Medicine where he earned a master’s degree in surgery through the University of Minnesota. After that he began his surgical practice in Albert Lea. In 1942, he volunteered to serve in the Medical Corps of the U.S. Navy as a surgeon on the hospital ship U.S.S. Solace in the South Pacific and several hospitals in the Pacific and the Continental U.S. He resumed surgical practice in Albert Lea in 1946 and retired in 1983 and his skills became legendary. He lived independently and drove his car until three months ago.
How interesting when Mayo announced plans to affiliate with the Albert Lea Regional Medical Group on Nov. 22, 1994. The story begins on Sept. 1, 1940, when Drs. Lowell C. Barr and Leo Donovan of Albert Lea joined the Palmer Clinic consisting of a father and son medical team, Drs. W.L. Palmer and C.F. Palmer. These general practitioners were joined by Dr. H. B. Neel, the first-board certified surgeon in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa outside of the Mayo Clinic, to found the Albert Lea Medical and Surgical Clinic. The group expanded its staff and services for many years which resulted in a move to a new building on Nov. 1, 1959, one block east of the Naeve Hospital. In September 1962, a more recently formed group, the Medical Arts Clinic, joined the Medical and Surgical Clinic to form the Albert Lea Medical and Surgical Center. By the 1980s, the clinic had four satellite clinics and 22 staff physicians and surgeons in six specialty areas. Dr. Neel’s surgical practice-especially emergency surgical services-was important in developing these affiliations. Most of his surgical referrals from outside of Albert Lea came from Alden, Kiester, Wells, New Richland, and several other small communities and from northern Iowa-Lake Mills and Northwood. For more than 40 years, he had close working relationships with physicians in these communities.
There are several elements of his professional career to which he often referred. He was a traditional and true mid-century rural general surgeon. His practice encompassed the entire breadth of the specialties, including general abdominal, endocrine, colon and rectal, urologic, orthopedic, gynecologic and pediatric surgery. He was known by his peers and his patients as a sagacious diagnostician and a superb technical surgeon. He attributed this to his broad experience with superb surgeons at Mayo and the Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Certainly, he was an expert on farm accidents and a pioneer in surgery of the hand. Farm accidents were the most common source of trauma patients, and these were among his most challenging patients. Also, there were frequent hunting (shotgun) injuries and automobile injuries. A good deal of his trauma training and experience was derived from his service in the South Pacific as a Naval surgeon. His series on surgery for gallbladder cancer is one of the largest series in the surgical literature.
There are several problems he faced as a rural surgeon. First there was a lack of support services. He recruited a surgical pathologist from Mayo to introduce frozen section techniques in the pathology lab of the Naeve Hospital. He introduced modern respiratory therapy and helped train many nurse anesthetists. He introduced sodium pentathol to his operating rooms shortly after it was used for the first time at Mayo. His application of new concepts in the nutritional care of the surgical patient at first seemed to be a novelty. He upgraded the curriculum of the Naeve School of Nursing and was a major participant in the teaching program.
Dr. Neel was a distinguished member of many professional organizations including the American College of Surgeons, past president of Minnesota Surgical Society, honorary member of the St. Paul Surgical Society, Minnesota Medical Association’s Fifty Club, and the Mayo Alumni Association.
He was the recipient of many honors including the Distinguished Citizen Award from the North Carolina Twin Valleys Council of Boy Scouts of America, an Eagle Scout Medallion bears his name and is given annually to each new Eagle Scout of the Old North Carolina State Council where he was the first Eagle Scout. He is a Paul Harris Fellow of Rotary International. He served as Honorary Chair for the Naeve Health Care Foundation’s Community Legacy Campaign. May 14, 2002, was proclaimed as the Dr. Harry B. Neel Day of the City of Albert Lea by Mayor Bob Haukoos. He was featured in recent Memorial Day and Fourth of July parades.
He is a member of the First Presbyterian Church.
Survivors include a son, Dr. H. Bryan Neel, III, Rochester; a daughter, Maja Neel Lunstrum, Ithaca, N.Y.; five grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his wife, May Bjrnsson Neel.
He will be interred at his ancestral pre-Civil War burial plot in Boston, Ga., with a private family memorial service.
Memorials are preferred to the Ingrid V. Neel Scholarship Fund for students in the health sciences, University of Minnesota in Rochester (111 South Broadway, Rochester, MN 55904).

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