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A place to learn and reflect

Donors helped to create the McElfresh Library as a gift to orthopaedic surgeons of today and tomorrow

There’s a unique new space tucked away on the University’s West Bank campus — a library that incorporates a trove of historical medical books as well as high-speed access to electronic versions of medical journals and texts.

It’s the McElfresh Orthopaedic Library, a place made possible through the vision of leaders in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, the generosity of many dedicated donors, and the legacy of a beloved hand surgeon by the name of Ed McElfresh, M.D.

The University of Minnesota has a long and rich history in orthopaedic surgery that stretches back to the founding of the Medical School in 1888. In recent years, McElfresh, an orthopaedic faculty member, carefully documented the department’s illustrious history at the request of Marc Swiontkowski, M.D., the department’s current leader. It was a natural extension of McElfresh’s deeply held passion for history: Over his lifetime, he amassed an extensive collection of 19th- and 20th-century books on the history of medicine and orthopaedic surgery in particular.

Following his untimely death in August 2000, the history project was continued by Jim House, M.D., and Karen Thomas, Ph.D., leading to the publication of A Century of Orthopaedic Heritage: A History of the University of Minnesota Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, which was dedicated to McElfresh.

Around the same time, the department relocated to the West Bank campus — a move that brought more space and direct access to the Riverside campus of the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview. But the move also put the department farther from the University’s biomedical library, located in Diehl Hall.

This confluence of events led House, a hand surgeon and former interim head of the department, to an innovative idea: What if we create a new library on the West Bank that incorporates both the historic McElfresh collection and online access to the latest medical texts?

House sat down with Swiontkowski to sketch out a shared vision for a conveniently located library where medical students, faculty, and practicing physicians could reflect on their profession’s past while accessing the University’s vast collection of medical volumes.

House had enjoyed a long and close friendship with Ed McElfresh and his wife, Nancy. When House approached Nancy about the library idea, she quickly understood the value to current and future physicians. “It’s a privilege to donate Ed’s books to begin or seed the library’s collection,” she says.

“Ed frequently spoke of his love of teaching orthopaedic surgery to residents,” adds Nancy, who is now Nancy McElfresh Sletten. “Lifelong learning and teaching were his passions. Through these donated books, in a sense, his teaching continues. We as a family feel a sense of pride when we see his name on the library and a sense of gratitude toward the orthopaedic community that has honored Ed in this way.”

House and Swiontkowski then fleshed out the details with leaders from the University’s Academic Health Center, Fairview, and the Minnesota Medical Foundation. After some careful planning, a fund-raising campaign was organized.

Others clearly saw value in the plan. To date, donors have contributed nearly $235,000 in commitments for the library, including major gifts from Nancy McElfresh Sletten; the Minnesota Orthopedic Society; Mark Engasser, M.D.; Steve Kuslich, M.D.; many orthopaedic alumni, colleagues, and friends; and several orthopaedic device companies.

The renovated space opened with much fanfare on November 17, 2005. “We couldn’t be happier or more proud of the finished space,” says House, who agreed to spearhead the fund-raising campaign.

Swiontkowski agrees. “It’s a real resource for our residents,” he says. Residents are especially impressed by the fact that they can get immediate access to digital X-rays of their patients admitted at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview. Swiontkowski says that when this new feature was showcased for students applying to the Medical School’s residency program, they were wowed.

There are now plans to incorporate instruction on how to most efficiently utilize the library’s resources into the core curriculum for orthopaedic surgery students, residents, and faculty. “With this library, we can teach problem-solving using electronic databases and tools,” says House.

The library’s McElfresh book collection also provides some historic perspective. “There’s a huge value in understanding the past,” says Swiontkowski. By studying medical precedents, the profession can avoid repeating costly mistakes, he says. “We are a community of scholars that proceed cautiously toward the new.”

House also points out that orthopaedic surgeons of today can’t understand where they’re going without respect for where the profession has been.

“The last 50 years have brought tremendous advancements in musculoskeletal science and bioscience,” he says. With access to both the history of orthopaedic surgery and the latest subspecialty journals, students, residents, and physicians can garner a broader view of the profession.

And that’s fitting for a library named after a physician who loved history, books, and technology. “It’s the perfect way to honor Ed’s memory,” says Swiontkowski.

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