Our History

Orthopedic surgery has a rich heritage at the University of Minnesota, dating back to the founding of the Medical School in 1888 when James E. Moore, MD, was the first professor of orthopedic surgery.

In 1897, Arthur Gillette, MD, assumed his duties as clinical professor and director of orthopedic surgery at the University of Minnesota. Gillette also established the first State Crippled Children’s Hospital in 1897, which became Gillette Children’s Hospital (Gillette)—an ongoing and vital part of orthopedic education and patient care throughout the 20th century. Upon the death of Dr. Gillette, Emil Geist, MD, became the director of the Division of Orthopedic Surgery in 1921.

Wallace Cole, MD, became director of the division at the University in 1933 upon the death of Dr. Geist. Dr. Cole was also the chief surgeon at the Minneapolis Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children, founded in 1923. He provided orthopedic leadership at Gillette Children's Hospital along with Carl Chatterton, MD. The orthopedic surgery residency started in 1939 with Harry Hall, MD, as the first Cole Fellow at the University of Minnesota.

After World War II, the orthopedic residency was reorganized into two programs, one based at the University as a Division of General Surgery under Dr. Cole, and one at the Veterans Hospital under the direction of Edward Evans, MD. Upon Dr. Cole’s retirement in 1956, Leonard Peltier, MD, served six months as the acting director of the Division of Orthopedic Surgery, and was formally replaced by John Moe, MD, as professor and director of the residency at the University in 1957. Dr. Moe also became chief of staff at Gillette Children's Hospital in 1958.

Robert Premer, MD, became the director of orthopedics at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VA) in 1960, and guided their residency program in the Twin Cities. Residents in both programs received fracture training at the Minneapolis General Hospital or Ancker Hospital in St. Paul. They were supervised by community faculty until 1968 when the era of full-time chiefs of orthopedic services began with Tom Comfort, MD, at St. Paul-Ramsey Medical Center, and Ramon Gustilo, MD, at Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC).

In 1969, the division became an independent Department of Orthopedic Surgery at the University with John Moe, MD, as professor and chair. The educational experience for residents continued at six hospitals, with the introduction of subspecialty experiences and additions of key faculty. The John Moe Spine Fellows program was established in 1971, and Dr. Moe chose to retire after serving as the president of the American Orthopaedic Association in 1972. James House, MD, became interim chair of orthopedic surgery until the appointment of Roby Thompson Jr., MD, as professor and department chair in 1974.

Dr. Thompson’s background as a talented scientist and clinician, and his initiative in establishing academic research leaders, became a major turning point in the department's role locally and nationally. He furthered the educational mission of the department, and in cooperation with the other program leaders, encouraged orthopedic research that added immensely to the academic stature of what was already a strong clinical training program. Numerous key additions of faculty took place during this time. The department partnered with Ramon Gustilo, MD, and Richard Kyle, MD, and established the Biomechanics Lab at HCMC. Ted Oegema, PhD, a biochemist, and Jack Lewis, PhD, a biomechanical engineer, further enhanced the national recognition of the program and attracted significant research funding.

A Fellowship in Sports Medicine was established in 1984 with Elizabeth Arendt, MD, as the first fellow. The University and VAMC residency programs merged in 1988, and the spirit of cooperation of the faculty at the six institutions has provided a well-balanced environment for a comprehensive education in orthopedic surgery and its subspecialties. With Thompson’s transition from department chair to chief medical officer of the University of Minnesota health system in 1995, Professor James Ogilvie, MD, served as interim head until 1997. 

The efforts to recruit a permanent chair paid off, and in 1997, Marc Swiontkowski, MD, was hired. The same year that Swiontkowski became department chair, in 1997, Fairview Health Services purchased the University of Minnesota Medical Center, creating an atmosphere of uncertainty about the institution’s role within the community and funding concerns for departments across the Medical School. Swiontkowski was recruited with the intent to develop a site that could see a high volume of patients with common orthopedic conditions, as University hospitals typically attract patients with complex, severe, or unique problems that require specialized care. Swiontkowski understood that to train well-rounded surgeons, residents would need more exposure to common orthopedic procedures. 

Swiontkowski’s mission of creating a healthcare center for common orthopedic conditions came to fruition with the opening of TRIA Orthopedic Center in 2005. When Swiontkowski stepped down to devote his attention to his new role as TRIA’s CEO in 2007, the department sought a chair with a commitment to the vision set forth by Moe, Thompson, and Swiontkowski.

Given his strong track record of cutting-edge research, innovation, and leadership, Denis Clohisy, MD, was named chair that year. Clohisy has been an active leader throughout his tenure, and was appointed as the Medical School's associate dean for surgical/procedural specialties in 2018. This has given the department an opportunity to lead through the many changes happening within health systems in recent years. Clohisy’s legacy has not only included innovation, but a steadfast dedication to the University’s mission, a commitment to establishing valuable partnerships, and creating the best possible place to work. All of this positively impacts the lives of patients touched by the department’s work.