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Alton Ochsner

TUPPER: New Orleans owes Kimball

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opinion Mitchell, 57301
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

There's a big health-care system in Louisiana that should send a check to some folks in my hometown.

Why? It's a long answer that begins in 1896. That was the year Alton Ochsner was born in Kimball.

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After graduating from Kimball High School, Ochsner went to college at the University of South Dakota and embarked on a medical career that eventually brought him to New Orleans. That's where he became, according to some sources, the nation's first anti-smoking crusader.

A 2012 story on Ochsner by the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper said he was taught early in his career that lung cancer was rare. That's why it surprised him to encounter numerous patients with the disease, all of them heavy smokers, during his first six months in New Orleans.

Ochsner and a colleague theorized a connection between smoking and lung cancer in a journal article published in 1939 -- 25 years before the U.S. surgeon general took formal action to reduce smoking rates in the United States. Anti-smoking efforts became a passion for Ochsner and culminated in his 1971 book, "Smoking: Your Choice Between Life and Death."

That legacy would have been enough to distinguish Ochsner as Kimball's most accomplished and famous son, but he achieved much more than that before his death in 1981. He taught more than 3,000 medical students (including at least 200 surgeons) performed more than 20,000 surgeries, and reportedly conducted the nation's first surgical separation of Siamese twins in 1953. His famous patients included actor Gary Cooper, golf legend Ben Hogan and Argentine President Juan Peron.

The strangest part of Ochsner's legacy is his prominence as a character in conspiracy theories revolving around the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

According to some highly unreliable and widely spread speculation on the Internet, Ochsner supposedly worked with the CIA to develop a fatal cancer virus that could be smuggled into Cuba and injected into Fidel Castro by someone posing as a doctor. There's a woman who claims she was working in Ochsner's clinic and was aware of the covert operation when she met and fell in love with none other than Lee Harvey Oswald and ...

Let's just say it gets even stranger from there, and we've gone far enough afield. Back to that health-care system and the debt it owes Kimball.

In 1942, Ochsner joined with some partner physicians to open the Ochsner Clinic. The clinic has since grown into the Ochsner Health System, which operates nine hospitals and 40 health centers in Louisiana with 14,000 employees.

I'd never heard of Ochsner until seven years ago when I interviewed Lucille Houda, a Kimball history buff. I was a reporter then and was working on a story about Kimball for a special section on the histories of towns in the Mitchell area.

"When we think of famous Kimball people, we think of Alton Ochsner," Houda told me that day.

My thoughts drifted to Ochsner again recently as I heard about community fundraising efforts to build a new medical clinic in Kimball.

And that brings me to my point: Wouldn't it be fitting if the Ochsner Health System made a donation to its namesake's hometown clinic?

It might also be nice if the clinic could include a plaque to honor and briefly tell the story of Alton Ochsner.

I'll nominate the following for an inscription.

"I've known people who loved to operate. That hasn't been my fascination," Ochsner was once quoted as saying. "My love for it is getting people well."

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