American Surgical Association Transactions

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1929 - 2019

Donald C. McIlrath, M.D., 1929-2019

Donald Christner McIlrath died peacefully on Saturday, December 7, 2019 at Charter House in Rochester, Minnesota. He was 90.

Donald McIlrath (Mac) was born in Hutchinson, Kansas to Donald and Lera McIlrath on February 2, 1929. He was raised in Great Bend, Kansas and graduated from Great Bend High School where he was a four-sport athlete and sang in the choir. Mac graduated from the University of Kansas in 1950 and that same year married his sweetheart, Constance Kendall, and decided to pursue a career in the medicine. He received his MD degree from the University of Kansas School of Medicine in 1954. Following an internship at the same institution, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served as a Lieutenant in the Medical Corps, assigned as a battalion surgeon with the U.S. Marines at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina and Okinawa, Japan.

When he returned from service in 1957, he entered the Mayo School of Graduate Medical Education as a fellow in surgery. Mac was appointed a Mayo Clinic Consultant in Surgery in 1962 and was destined to spend his entire career at the institution. Together he and Connie raised their four children in Rochester. He advanced through the academic ranks and became Professor of Surgery at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in 1974. A gifted leader and surgeon, he became Chair, Department of Surgery 1979-1987, and was a member of both the Mayo Clinic Board of Governors and the Board of Trustees. He was a member of multiple academic surgical organizations and served as president of six. He was a master technical surgeon and his interests were diseases of the pancreas, biliary tree, gastrointestinal tract and breast. He was a member of the surgical team caring for President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 and was surgeon for President Ronald Reagan’s wife, Nancy, in 1987. He retired from Mayo Clinic in 1993.

Mac was Chair of the Department of Surgery when I joined the surgical staff of the Mayo Clinic in 1980. Always the tough task master, he was a technically gifted surgeon with superb surgical judgement. Whenever I had a particularly tough case, I would ask myself, “what would Mac do?” I was in the Emergency Room in 1986 when his first wife, Connie, was admitted for a severe and ultimately fatal stroke. It was then that I got to observe his soft side. Two years later he married Alice Hoffman, who had also lost a spouse, and together they enjoyed a vibrant life in retirement that included traveling, gardening, tennis, opera and participating in the Minnesota cultural community. Mac was a passionate student of history and served on the Executive Council of the Minnesota Historical Society from 1993 to 2005. In 2001, he and his wife Alice (Hoffman) McIlrath established the Donald and Alice McIlrath Endowed Fund in support of Minnesota History. Mac and Alice were devoted members of the Surgeon’s Travel Club attending meetings annually through 2016 until travel was prevented by declining health. After 29 years of marriage, Alice died in 2017.

Donald McIlrath was a strong and effective leader. He was a master surgeon who demanded the best of himself and his trainees. He made his mark and though he has passed on, his legacy lives on through the scores of surgeons he trained during his long career at Mayo Clinic. He will be missed and not soon forgotten.