Changing with the times

By Tim Brady

Though it’s been around for nearly a century, Boynton Health Service stays current by evolving to meet students’ needs

The University of Minnesota Student Health Service opened its doors almost 100 years ago in the midst of one of the most serious health crises in the nation’s history. As the fall semester of 1918 began, the great flu pandemic was sweeping the globe, bringing the health service its first patients. 

Under its first director, John Sundwall, M.D., Ph.D., a small staff of nurses, medical students, and doctors drawn from the University Hospital were swamped by more than 2,000 victims of the virus. So quickly and virulently did the flu spread that the University of Minnesota closed its doors in mid-October, for the first and only time in its history. Classrooms were shuttered and students sent home for the rest of the month. 

The new health service, housed in the basement of Pillsbury Hall, continued to see influenza patients through the winter and into the spring of 1919. In all, 20 students succumbed to the epidemic, but the clinic had proved its worth.

Ruth Boynton’s Medical School graduation portrait, 1920

Ruth Boynton’s Medical School graduation portrait, 1920 (Photos: University Archives)

Boynton steps in

In 1921, Sundwall left his post and was replaced by Harold Diehl (’18 M.D., ’21 M.A.). Hired that same year were Ruth Boynton (’20 M.D., ’27 M.P.H.) and William Shepard (’22 M.D.). Boynton had arrived in Minneapolis in the midst of the flu epidemic and was thrust into service as a medical student volunteer.

She contracted the virus herself while working at the clinic but recovered, went on to complete her medical degree at the U of M School of Medicine, and wound up back at the University’s Student Health Service working under Diehl. She would spend most of her professional career at the clinic, ultimately succeeding Diehl as director of the health service when he was named dean of the U’s College of Medical Sciences in 1936. 

Rapid growth

In its first years, the health service grew rapidly — from just over 16,000 student visits in 1918–19 to more than 35,000 in 1922–23. The staff grew commensurately. By 1924, the health service had six full- and eight part-time doctors; one full- and 10 part-time dentists; 10 nurses; plus dental assistants, lab and X-ray technicians, and clerks and other office help. 

Also by 1924, a second student health clinic building had opened on the St. Paul campus to join the first one at Pillsbury Hall on the main campus. Aside from providing day-to-day medical and dental services to students, the clinics performed physicals, which were required of all entering students, and they monitored and controlled any communicable diseases that might afflict the campuses’ students. 

Tuberculosis was the most devastating of these concerns in the early years of the health service, with an average of two cases diagnosed every month. There were also outbreaks of smallpox and scarlet fever on campus in the 1920s, and a 25-bed infirmary was available for students who needed overnight care. 

Expanding services

When Boynton became director of the Student Health Service, she quickly established a reputation for innovation and expansion of services to meet new and pressing student needs. The health service was among the first in the nation to hire a dietitian, and it established a special diet table for students with diabetes, gastric ulcers, and other nutritional issues.

By shortly after World War II, the clinics offered the most comprehensive medical care of any student health service in the country.

After the Health Service outgrew its Pillsbury home, it moved into a new space adjoining the U’s hospital complex in 1929.

Boynton expanded the clinics’ mental health services after World War II to meet the needs of soldiers returning from the traumas of war. By shortly after the war, the clinics offered the most comprehensive medical care of any student health service in the country. It also was the nation’s largest student health service both in number of staff and number of people served. 

All the while, student enrollment skyrocketed and so did the number of visits to the clinics. The 40,000 visits to the Minneapolis Student Health Service in the last year of the war doubled in just two years and would hit 200,000 10 years later. More space was needed, so the U broke ground on a new health service building at its current site on Church Street. The building was completed by 1950, expanded in 1955, and expanded again in 1960.

After Boynton retired, in 1961, the health service continued to evolve. Renamed Boynton Health Service in 1975, it continued its innovative ways, pioneering women’s health initiatives, including offering gynecological and counseling services to coincide with the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. Optometry, pharmacy, and psychiatric services also have expanded through the years, as have programs to provide health education to University students. 

Born in crisis and nurtured through the remarkable growth of the University through the 20th century, the Boynton Health Service remains primed to respond to student needs.  

Photo slideshow: Student health concerns change with the times, too

Published on October 19, 2015

Student Health Services in 1929, the first year this building was open

Out in front

The University of Minnesota’s Student Health Service was the first of its kind nationally to:

  • hire a woman to direct a coeducational health service (1936)
  • require a tuberculosis test in routine physical exams and to X-ray those who tested positive (1928)
  • require a syphilis test during routine physical exams (1938)
  • hire a health educator (1954)
  • receive accreditation from the Accreditation Association for Ambulatory Health Care (1979) 

It also was at the forefront in addressing the storage and disposal of radioactive waste and other environmental hazards and hired a public health engineer to tackle these issues in 1949.