Giovanna Breu
June 09, 1980 12:00 PM

A pregnant woman in La Crosse, Wis. can get obstetrical care from Dr. Gundersen and take her child to a pediatrician named Gundersen. If she falls ill later, she could consult an internist, Dr. Gundersen, be X-rayed by a radiologist, Dr. Gundersen, and be operated on by a three-surgeon team, Drs. Gundersen, Gundersen and Gundersen. Needless to say, the place she would go for all this medical attention is the Gundersen Clinic.

The seven Gundersens now practicing there bring to 11 the number of physicians the family has given to La Crosse. The first Gundersen was Dr. Adolf, who arrived in 1891 in answer to an ad for an assistant placed in a Norwegian medical journal by Dr. Christian Christensen. Adolf, just out of the University of Oslo, found his early years in the U.S. difficult. “We are a caste of incredibly low status,” he complained in a letter to his family. “These busy Americans don’t even have time for the whole word ‘doctor,’ but have shortened it to just ‘Doc’—an ugly word.”

Things improved, and in 1893 Adolf went back to Norway, married Helga Isaksaetre, a teacher, and brought her to Wisconsin. They had eight children.

Dr. Adolf was greatly respected—among other achievements, he performed what was probably the state’s first appendectomy—but he warned his offspring away from medicine. “What kind of life is it for a man?” he once asked. “No time to himself at any hour…” Nonetheless, six of his seven sons became doctors; the seventh, a farmer. His only daughter married a psychiatrist. Four of the sons, Gunnar, Alf, Sigurd B. Sr. and Thorolf (a 69-year-old internist who still sees patients), joined their father in his first clinic, which opened in 1930 on the outskirts of the city. The Gundersen Clinic now has a staff of 135 doctors and 625 nurses, technicians and other personnel. Only 75 miles from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., it is one of the dozen largest group practices in the U.S., attracting patients (and doctors) from all over the country.

Clinic president is Dr. Sigurd B. Gundersen Jr., 55, a 1948 graduate of Harvard Medical School. The other Gundersens have solid backgrounds too. Dr. Erik, 49, specialized in cardiac and pediatric surgery at the Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Boston after graduating from Harvard. Dr. Cameron, 50, is working in a state program to combat encephalitis, and Dr. Jerome, 44, is one of the authors of a paper on the effects of the anti-miscarriage drug DES that appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine. Five fourth-generation Gundersens are following in the family tradition. Among them are Gunnar III, who’s at George Washington med school, and Sig III, a second-year student in the Dominican Republic. Eleanor Burden, Sig Jr.’s niece, is at the clinic this spring for field training. She’s a student at the University of Birmingham in England. A nephew is an M.D. in Norway.

After Dr. Adolf died at 72 in 1938, a foundation was established in his memory. It brings in 100 doctors every year from hospitals, schools and clinics throughout the U.S. for teaching and consultation.

“We are doing something special for this community,” says Dr. Erik (all the Gundersens are, for obvious reasons, known by their first names). In its way, La Crosse pays them back. Dr. Cameron, for example, says he never considered settling permanently anywhere else but the industrial city of 50,000. “I’ve lived in several major metropolises of the U.S., and I didn’t find them appealing,” he says. “There’s peace here.”

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