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Library Archives - Legacy Affinity: Hallmarks of Mercy : Nurses & Physicians

This Libguide helps to preserve the historical and cultural record of Affinity Health System, which became part of Ministry Health Care in 2012, part of Ascension Health Care in 2013.

Nurses & Physicians at Mercy

Dr Corbet  Dr Oviatt Dr Connell Generations The Clark Family 

Gladys Nurses 1939 The Bray Family





Up until Florence Nightingales’ time, nursing was generally not considered an acceptable profession. One reason was because nurses were exposed to illnesses they might end up catching themselves. Unless a woman became a nun, caring for the sick was not looked upon highly….especially on a full-time basis. A woman’s place was in the home.

Formalized training went a long way to change the image of nurses. As procedures became more standardized from hospital to hospital, nurses were required to meet rigorous educational requirements. Nursing schools upheld strict codes of conduct and began to take on more prestige. Each school had its own nursing cap and pin to further promote a sense of belonging to a select group.

Even so, nursing schools provided an inexpensive form of labor for hospitals. Student nurses cooked the food, scrubbed the floors and stoked the fires, since there were no departments for foodservice, housekeeping and maintenance back then. The work was physically demanding.

"Water was boiled in copper kettles on the gas plate in the small service room and carried to the operating room in covered pitchers. Patients were taken to and from the operating room on stretchers. All types of cases were cared for in the hospital at that time. Trays were served from the basement kitchen, and carried to the upper floors. There was no elevator in those days. The number of hours on duty was very indefinite; classes were held occasionally in the evening. No night supervisor or graduate assistant advised one during the weary hours".

At the end of the 19th century, physicians also took on strenuous workloads. Without the electric tools of today, surgery was exhausting. Their long hours included traveling to make house calls.

Physicians typically worked out of their homes until the late 1800s. But with advances in science, hospitals became centers of technology, with equipment and staff doctors could no longer afford on their own.

Even so, doctors at Mercy were still required to buy their own instruments up until the 60s, when the hospital began to furnish the best instruments available. This was good timing, because by the 1970s, one doctor recalls that "new devices came out every five minutes!".

During the 20th century, technology progressed at an accelerated pace, resulting in highly specialized equipment, which in turn fostered more specialized disciplines of study in the health care field. But specialists are not new to the Fox River Valley. As early as the 1880s, Dr F Gregory Connell (Oshkosh), Dr Nicholas Senn (Fond du Lac) and Dr J B Murphy (Appleton) were developing new surgical techniques. Dr Connell went on to establish two new societies – the Wisconsin Surgical Society and the Wisconsin Surgical Travel Club – in his efforts to promote further education among surgeons.

Physicians such as these pioneered the improvements we often take for granted in the year 2000. Most of the patients we are treating today would not have survived 50 years ago. With doctors saving the lives of more patients, recovery has become a more complicated process. This has spawned the need for more support staff, such as respiratory and physical therapists.

Not surprisingly, technological advances have also made the role of nurses more challenging than ever. They must have the knowledge to understand technology and lab tests, since they are the ones who most likely will be first to detect any signs of trouble. They need to be in tune with the complex interaction of patients’ nervous, endocrine, muscular and circulatory systems, so they can alert the proper physician if anything seems out of balance. Not only must they be able to communicate intelligently with specialists, they must be able to translate complicated information clearly and sensitively to patients and their families. It’s a nurse’s job to keep everything on track.

As we move beyond the year 2000, we expect the responsibilities of nurses and physicians to become even more complex. Government and private health plans are making it increasingly challenging for doctors to prescribe the care and treatments of choice. Furthermore, the prevalence of litigation in our society is pushing the need for documentation the forefront of a nurse’s many other duties. We will need to keep exploring new roles, procedures and treatments that allow us to continue providing quality health care that is efficient, as well as compassionate.

Dr Corbett

Dr. M. E. Corbett

Dr. M. E. Corbett was one of the first surgeons to come to Oskkosh. He secured a small frame building on the northeast corner of Washington Avenue and Hazel street and named it Lakeside Sanatorium.

When St. Mary’s, the first full service hospital in Oshkosh was completed in 1895, Dr. Corbett was on its staff. However, he left St. Mary’s in 1912 to open Lakeside Hospital, a brand new facility on Hazel Street facing Menominee Park and Lake Winnebago. It was considered practically fireproof in its day and featured the latest equipment in its operating room.

According to Sister M. Thomasina, "Dr. Corbett bought this place because it was so beautifully located near the lake. To make his hospital attractive, he bought the best of everything – the most expensive and the finest he could find on the market. Another proof of how he tried to outshine St. Mary’s are the beautiful shrubs all over the premises, for which he spent about $5,000, even importing some from Canada".

However, Lakeside Hospital proved to be a money-losing proposition. In 1918, the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother agreed to buy Lakeside Hospital, renaming it Mercy Hospital.

Sister M. Thomasina detailed the transition from Lakeside to Mercy: "The linens at Lakeside were all worn out, torn and dirty. It was a job to make order of the chaos. Rats and mice were without number! Because things had gotten so bad, Dr. Corbett couldn’t keep a cook anymore. Every day he had to look for another one. The nurses and others had to eat sauerkraut every day. For breakfast, each had two pancakes, but no bread".

* * * 

After all his troubles, Dr. Corbett came back to the hospital he had built, to die. Sister M. Eleanora reported that "in his suffering he was very patient, and he died very peacefully". Mrs. Corbett, Father Rice, the hospital chaplain and a few Sisters were at his side when he died.

Dr Oviatt in 1910

Dr. Charles William Oviatt was considered the best surgeon and medical doctor in the city. When he became a member of St. Mary’s Hospital (forerunner of Mercy) in 1894, he brought great prestige to the institution and attracted other physicians as well. He was a personal friend of the Mayo brothers – Charles and William – who were as famous in Rochester and beyond the state of Minnesota, as Dr. Oviatt was in Oshkosh and beyond the state of Wisconsin.

Early in his career, Dr. Oviatt became known as the "miracle doctor", mainly because he could successfully remove cataracts. This was a very delicate operation, which he performed under difficult conditions with old-fashioned instruments.

Later, Dr. Oviatt performed the first appendectomy in Wisconsin. His patient was an eight year old Fond du Lac girl, and people were shocked to find that he would "use the knife" on one so young. Furthermore, they didn’t think it was advisable to be operating in a hospital, instead of the girl’s home. But the operation proved successful, and people began to change their way of thinking.

Dr. Oviatt went on to play an important role in developing St. Mary’s Hospital. He himself paid for the equipment in the new operating rooms, aiming for "the last word in modern surgeries and laboratories". It was there that Dr. Oviatt performed the first goiter removal in the state.

Dr. Oviatt’s renowned success as a surgeon, as well as his profound kindness, attracted patients from near and far. People from out of town were brought to the hospital on stretchers in freight cars. Once, after Dr. Oviatt had diagnosed another doctor’s patient, the lady said to him, "Doctor, I leave it entirely to you; do what you think is right and best". The patient’s doctor, astonished at hearing this, said to Dr. Oviatt, "Say, Dr.,Oviatt, why is it that people have such great confidence in you the minute they meet you? This patient never saw you before, and she is at once ready to put her life completely in your hands". Dr. Oviatt answered, "Well, don’t you know yet? That is because I am bald-headed."

Despite the humility, Dr. Oviatt possessed a great sense of knowledge and wrote many papers describing his medical advances. As a result, he earned numerous honors, including election as one of the fifty members of the Society of Clinical Surgery.. This was an organization for the younger medical men of prominence in the United States. To qualify for membership, a doctor must "have discovered some new method of performing some kind of an operation". Many of Dr. Oviatt’s writings were termed "standard authority" at the time of his death.

Dr Connell

Dr. F. Gregory Connell

Dr. F. Gregory Connell came to Oshkosh in 1907 and lived here until his death in 1968 at the age of 93. Because he was a very independent man, he spent almost his entire practice in Oshkosh as a solo surgeon.

Over the course of his career, Dr. Connell published more than 90 papers on various medical subjects and was respected by surgeons throughout the US and Europe. One of his earliest papers, presented to the American Medical Association (AMA) in 1901, was largely responsible for his notoriety. In it, he described a suture (shown above) for untiting the bowel after a part of it had been removed due to conditions such as ulcers or cancer.

This suture was a modification of an earlier suture developed by his father, Dr. M.E. Connell, during the late 1890s. At that time, every surgeon had his own suture, and the success or failure of an operation (most often a failure) was attributed to the suture … never the surgeon.

Although the elder Dr. Connell’s suture never caught on, after the modification by Dr. F. Gregory Connell, the "Connell Suture" became routine practice. Ironically, the modification eventually proved unnecessary. The medical community gradually realized that the original recommendation by Dr. M.E. Connell was, in the end, effective.

Dr Connell Reprint


Like father, like son, in the photo the young men in the front row all decided to follow in the footsteps of their physician fathers, standing behind them. Shown from left to right: Doctors Zmolek, Flaherty, Weber and McDonald.

The Clark Family

The Clark Family

Three generations of Clark Family surgeons have helped keep Oshkosh residents alive and healthy for more than 100 years. Dr. William "Bill" Clark, seated in foreground, performed general surgery in Oshkosh from 1934 to 1976. His son, Dr. David Dick Clark, a general, vascular and hand surgeon, began his practice in 1974. Dr. Burton Clark, shown in the photo held by Dick Clark, began the tradition in 1894.

Gladys             [Photo Nurses Cape]

The nurse’s cape on display was owned by Gladys M. Reetz, a 1933 graduate of the Mercy School of Nursing. She married Francis E. Brooks on April 23, 1934 and they had three children. (Cape and photo donated by their daughter, Jacqueline C. Schmidt.)


MMC Nurses 1939

The nursing staff from December 1939 (l-r): I Hogan, R Lutz, L Jahn, A Dillon, J Miller, C Allen.


[Photo Cap]     [Photo Lamps]

The capping ceremony marks the successful completion of a nurse’s preclinical training. It is a moment of achievement, when the nurse has earned the privilege of wearing the school’s cap and pin. Every nursing school has its own signature cap and pin, which are symbols of dignity and professional standing.

The nurse’s cap is a sign of her profession. By virtue of its design, it represents here school of nursing, whose teachings will be a part of her for the rest of her life. It has been linked to a crown, an emblem of loyalty and a badge of service.

At the beginning of the capping ceremony, nurses carry lamps called Nightingale lamps. These lamps are named after Florence Nightingale, who was known as "The Lady with the Lamp:. They symbolize the comfort and advice Florence gave to soldiers in the military hospital in Turkey, where she made rounds each night carrying a lamp.


The Bray Family

As health care continues to b e come more specialized, it is critical that care givers from all disciplines work together and communicate effectively. We call this coordinated team approach MercyCare.

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