MEMOIR OF DONALD GUTHRIE by Hugh Robertson, M. D.

Donald Guthrie, perfectionist and champion of the importance of little things, died in Sayre, Pennsylvania, the little town which he made famous, October 30, 1958, aged 78. He was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, less than a hundred miles away, on June 23, 1880. His mother, Sara Hollenbach Wright, was the daughter of a pioneering industrial family; his father George Washington Guthrie, was a famous surgeon, friend of the Mayos, and a founder of the American College of Surgeons.

At twenty-one (in 1901), Donald Guthrie graduated at Yale University (Ph. B.) and entered the Medical School of the University of Pennsylvania. In 1905 he had his M.D. and returned to intern with his father at the City Hospital in Wilkes-Barre. The fashionable thing would now be a grand tour of the European surgical clinics, but young Guthrie was fascinated by the work of the two brothers, friends of his father, in a small town in Minnesota. This was 1906.

William H. Mayo, aged 45, and his brother, Charles, 41, were too busy doing big things in a simple and unassuming environment to realize that in a few short years they and their little clinic would be world-famous. Donald Guthrie was the first “Easterner” to be formally trained at the Mayo Clinic. “Formally” is not quite correct—“they just put me to work—and I mean work”, said Guthrie later. “There were few hands at Rochester in those days, and little things were done promptly by the first person at hand.” “No one trained in our wards,” Will Mayo explained, “could see or smell a soiled dressing without then and there examining the wound and putting a fresh dressing on it. He didn’t tell someone else to do it or leave orders to have it done.” This simple attention to little things became a part of Donald Guthrie’s life…”

In 1910 (The American College of Surgeons was founded in 1913), Donald Guthrie, Yale graduate, handsome, prosperous and well-trained was ready to go out into the world to seek his fortune. The family had friends in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago who begged him to join them. But Guthrie had discovered the joy of self-accomplishment, and chose a little railroad town in Pennsylvania (Sayre) as the right and proper community for his life’s work. There he took over the management of the struggling little Robert Packer Hospital

George Hawk, who became his life-long associate, liked to say that when Donald Guthrie went to Sayre in 1910 he got:

  1. An inclement winter
  2. A hospital housing 15 patients, in an 1880 railroad tycoon’s decadent grand mansion
  3. A small dispensary
  4. One wheel chair
  5. One intern (George Hawk)
  6. No Administrator
  7. A $35,000 debt.

The fifteen-bed hospital has grown to a nationally known diagnostic and surgical clinic. Through association with the Graduate School of Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania and the Hahnemann Medical College, the little town in Northern Pennsylvania became an off-campus post-graduate centre, and a very exciting one.

In 1916 Donald Guthrie married Emily Franklin Baker of New York; she, gay and social, proved a most exceptional hostess. Sayre was a convenient overnight railroad stop between New York and Cleveland or Chicago; this fact combined with the famed Guthrie hospitality, brought a constant stream of famous doctors to the clinic. The interns and residents met these visitors informally in the library of the Guthrie residence, shook hands and chatted with them, and felt the sympathetic touch of greatness that would affect them forever after. More than one hundred fifty men have qualified for specialty boards and advanced medical degrees under Donald Guthrie’s tutelage, but the personal contact with Donald Guthrie’s galaxy of friends gave a new majesty to the routine preparation for the practice of a specialty.

Donald Guthrie really gloated over the success and well-being of his proteges. He had no children of his own, so he devoted himself to his associates and assistants. He built himself a small empire in the little railroad town, using perfection as a yardstick and friendliness as cement. He was czar. He made the plans and gave the orders. He was a cruel taskmaster but his fairness and quick appreciation of a deed well done made those who worked with him love him.

Typical of his concern in the development of his staff was his establishment of the “Guthrie Clinic Bulletin” as a vehicle for printing of the papers prepared by interns and residents. Many now famous surgeons and other medical specialists will remember as long as they live the thrill of seeing their first scientific essay in print in “The Bulletin.” He sent his staff to every important scientific meeting with arrangements for train and hotel reservations made in advance in the most minute detail. (All one had to do was to be at the station in time for the train). At the meetings one took copious notes, for one knew that he must give a detailed report at the next weekly staff meeting.

Staff meetings at the Guthrie Clinic were amazing things to outsiders. Nearly always there were talks by famous doctors (brought to Sayre by Guthrie hospitality), interspersed by essays and reports of studies by the newest interns. Following the papers there would be a general discussion by the interns, famous guests, staff men, --all. And then the whole transaction would be published in “the bulletin”.

Honors came incessantly. He became President of his local County Medical Society four years after settling in Bradford County. In 1932 he was president of the Medical Society of the State of Pennsylvania. He traveled extensively and made friends wherever he went. He befriended Hungarian surgical students and received very special honors from the Budapest Surgical Society. The Academy of Medicine of Rome and the Brazilian Surgical Society honored him with fellowships. He was a member of the Board of Governors of the American College of Surgeons. He was a founder of the American Board of Surgery. His social clubs were the Yale and Union in New York, and the Rittenhouse and Racquet Clubs in Philadelphia. He was elected to many medical and surgical societies and associations. His postgraduate teaching brought him professorships at the University of Pennsylvania and Hahnemann Medical College.

The time came when Charles H. Mayo sent his son, Charles, to Sayre to intern with Donald Guthrie. Grandson Charles is presently at Sayre.

Those who came under the influence of Donald Guthrie will remember him longest because of his humanity. Upon his return from a visit to Budapest, he brought with him a specially built music box so that patients, awaking suddenly from anesthesia in strange and frightening surroundings, might be lulled and soothed by the tinkle of “The Skaters’ Waltz”. To Donald Guthrie, little things were very important.

This article about Donald Guthrie, provided by the Guthrie Healthcare Archives, was written by Hugh Robertson, M.D. in 1959 for Transactions and Studies of the College of Physician of Philadelphia.  Dr. Robertson was a resident at the Robert Packer Hospital in 1931 and started the Guthrie Journal.