The History of Lahey Clinic

When Dr. Frank Lahey founded a group practice in 1923-and gave it his own name-it was an unconventional step in the world of medicine. His plan to create a clinic where many specialties would coexist under one roof was a source of considerable debate. But only a decade later, newspaper headlines were describing this unusual place as the "World Famous Lahey Clinic."

Building a Group Practice

Lahey's original team-anesthesiologist Lincoln Sise, operating nurse Blanche Wallace, surgical assistant Howard Clute, and gastroenterologist Sara Jordan-were pioneers in their fields. There were likely few physicians at the time who didn't toast to Jordan as they sipped a stomach-soothing "Jordan Highball" (half orange juice, half hot water) or administer anesthesia using a "Sise introducer."

Hospitals were springing up in urban centers throughout the nation, following the development of new medical technologies and growth in the nursing profession. At this time, a young Dr. Lahey-already a prominent figure in the Boston surgical community-stood at 605 Commonwealth Ave., observing the placement of a cornerstone. This is where Lahey Clinic would remain for another 55 years.

Physicians saw only outpatients at Lahey Clinic in Boston. In fact, much of the day was spent traveling between the New England Baptist, New England Deaconess, and Peter Bent Brigham hospitals to perform surgeries and visit inpatients. Shifts were often in excess of 24 hours, and five hours was described as "a good night's sleep."

"We were called out to outlying Greater Boston towns for emergencies-to towns and cities in New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine," said Wallace in a 1958 speech to the Harvard Club. "Winter trips with Dr. Clute were especially rugged for he was the outdoor type who preferred an open touring car. We would go a few shivering miles, pile out, scrape the ice from the glass, get back into the cold, wet seats-only to repeat the performance again and again. But we always seemed to get there 'on time.'

"It was on these trips with Dr. Lahey that I learned what his dream was-a Lahey Clinic complete in every detail for the care and cure of the sick."

By the 1930s and '40s, the Clinic was known worldwide for its phenomenal surgical outcomes, and state-of-the-art treatment of thyroid, gastrointestinal and gall bladder disorders.

At the Forefront of Medicine

"It is obvious that I cannot begin to recount Dr. Lahey's contributions to World Surgery. He was unswervingly committed to the practice and teaching of careful surgery, making operations safer in the hands of the average surgeon," wrote Bradford Cannon, MD, in his history of the Boston Surgical Society.

The reputation that Lahey Clinic has for innovative technology, pioneer medical treatment and leading-edge research was built upon Dr. Lahey's belief that the group practice should also be a center for research and learning. From the beginning, the Clinic offered residents and fellows a chance to polish their skills under the careful supervision of some of the nation's leading physicians.

Kenneth Warren, MD, a senior surgeon in the 1970s, was quoted as saying: "Dr. Lahey was a natural born teacher. He would go to any meeting-he didn't care how small it was-if he thought he could contribute something."

A teaching hospital is not complete without cutting-edge technology, which is something the Clinic consistently made available-whether becoming the proud owner of an X-ray machine in 1925, a state-of-the-art "Model O" heart-lung machine in 1969, a whole body ACTA-scanner in 1975, or a PACS digital archiving system in 2002.

By the time the Clinic moved to its current location in November 1980, the practice had expanded to include services offered by more than 30 departments. Many of these departments had begun with a single physician who worked to promote his or her specialty. The Gastroenterology and Anesthesiology Departments, in particular, arose from the practices of Jordan and Sise, who in the 1920s were among the first physicians in the United States to specialize in these growing fields.

Gerald L. Zeitlin, MD, FRCA, of Newton, Mass., who has collected material on the early Lahey anesthesiologists, recalls articles about anesthesiology at Lahey appearing in journals in the 1920s. "I am absolutely sure there were no other surgeons, at least as distinguished at Frank H. Lahey became, who would go into print and state the importance of good anesthesia toward successful surgery," he said.

Lahey Clinic of Today

By the early 1970s, Lahey Clinic had expanded into offices at 143 Bay State Road and 565 Commonwealth Ave. It became evident that the Clinic would operate more smoothly if all the specialties were under one roof.

Dr. Lahey was quoted as saying: "I have often been asked how the Clinic was started and how its growth was promoted. I have always answered that I really do not know. It started with a few men and women, and has literally grown up about my ears and continues to grow."

In 1971, Lahey  Clinic made the long-awaited announcement: "Over 2,000 Burlington voters, the largest number ever to attend a regular or special meeting in the town," overwhelmingly voted in favor of the construction of Lahey Clinic Medical Center in Burlington.

Nearly 719,000 outpatients and 18,000 inpatients were treated at Lahey Clinic Medical Center last year-the highest number in the history of the Clinic. Lahey is consistently recognized in U.S. News & World Report's "America's Best Hospitals" issue, and Lahey physicians are consistently ranked "tops" in their fields by Boston Magazine.

The Future of Medicine Initiative was completed in 2007 with the development of the Landsman  Heart & Vascular center and the Sophia Gordon Cancer Center.

Lahey Clinic Medical Center, North Shore

The Lahey Clinic Medical Center, North Shore, facility and clinical services expansion is an important step toward ensuring that the North Shore and surrounding communities receive the finest care for years to come. With the completion of its 65,000 square foot expansion, Lahey Clinic is offering even more services in a larger, patient and family friendly environment. Renovations within the existing 162,000 square foot medical center will offer improved patient flow and new technologies. 

In addition, space for procedural and diagnostic testing will be added, including a dedicated surgery and procedure center and expansion of Radiology services. All of these efforts will ensure patients continue receiving top-notch diagnostic care and treatment close to home. 

Frank Lahey, MD

Frank Lahey, MD (1880-1953), held national influence in the medical profession, not only as a world-renowned surgeon, but also as a distinctive teacher and medical administrator.

His innovative group care model-in which medical specialists cooperate to provide comprehensive patient care-was at first viewed with skepticism. But Lahey held firmly to his belief that the best outcomes were produced by teams of physicians who shared their expertise.

"Usually referred to as the outstanding general surgeon in the world today, at times of crisis he was never known to lose either his head or his nerve," stated the Boston Globe in 1953. "First and foremost he never allowed himself or his assistants to forget they had a human life in their hands. Surely but for him, thousands would not be alive today."

Although he prided himself on being a general surgeon, Lahey was well known for his expertise in thyroid and esophageal surgery, and surgery for cancer of the stomach and bowel. The "two-stage surgery" that he pioneered, in which surgery was completed in two steps over a period of two to four days, greatly improved surgical outcomes. In fact, his method decreased the mortality rate following thyroid surgery from 1-in-5 to 1-in-140.

Like his father-who was a granite cutter by trade and eventually became a wealthy bridge contractor-Lahey built his career on humble beginnings.

Lahey attended high school in his hometown of Haverhill, Mass., where he had his own paper route and worked at his father's firm. He then went on to attend Harvard Medical School, where he received a medical degree in 1904. After he served as intern and house surgeon at Long Island Hospital (1904-1905) and as a surgeon at Boston City Hospital (1905-1907), Lahey became resident surgeon of the Haymarket Relief Station (1908). He was on the surgical faculty of Harvard Medical School (1908-1909 and 1912-1915), and served as professor of surgery at Tufts Medical School (1913-1917).

Because of his strong educational influence, Lahey is often regarded as one of America's greatest teachers of surgery. Gastroenterologist Sara Jordan, MD, one of the first to join Lahey's practice, published an article in the 1953 New England Journal of Medicine that noted: "His skill [brought] hundreds of surgeons from all parts of the world to see him operate and to share with him the knowledge and experience he was always ready to pass on to others."

During World War I, Lahey served as a major in the Army Medical Corps and director of surgery at Evacuation Hospital No. 30. After his return from military service, he opened a small practice on Beacon Street in Boston that was founded in 1923 as "Lahey Clinic."

President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Lahey to serve on a special commission to report on medical standards during World War II. It was this, and his extensive experience as a military surgeon, that strengthened Lahey's belief that anesthesia had created a new kind of surgery, which was best performed and refined by teams of surgical specialists.

Lahey held many influential leadership positions, including president of the American Medical Society, New England Surgical Society, American Surgical Society, and International Society of Surgeons. He also operated on many notables in his lifetime, including President Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua.

In 1946, Lahey was awarded the Henry Jacob Biglow Medal of the Boston Surgical Society in recognition of his surgical achievements.

The life of Frank Lahey is best summed up by a speech that now resides in the United States Congressional Record. When the House of Representatives met shortly after his death on June 27, 1953, a memorial speech was delivered in his honor and concludes: "The medical profession has lost one of its greatest members. Massachusetts has lost a citizen who accepted with enthusiasm the broader responsibilities of his profession. The world has lost a man who was unequaled in his services to mankind."