The origins of Gundersen can be traced back to the 19th Century when frontier attitudes about culture, manners and medicine prevailed. At that time, there were some "medical doctors," but most received their degrees from diploma mills. The exception was Adolf Gundersen, whose European training quickly placed him as the city's premiere physician, when he began his La Crosse practice in 1891.
His reputation as a surgeon grew so great that it was often said that the life cycle in La Crosse consisted of birth, christening, an operation by Gundersen, and much later hopefully, death.
Before Lutheran Hospital opened in 1902, many of the early operations were performed in patients' homes. When local clergy first planned construction of a new hospital, Gundersen recognized the opportunity and served as the hospital's first medical director.
In 1917 an event forever changed the practice of medicine in La Crosse and perhaps the nation. Upset about the incompetent medical practice of some physicians, Dr. Gundersen went to the hospital board to ask that his "firm" have control over who was to practice medicine at Lutheran. Later, other doctors in La Crosse, who were not admitted to the staff, sued, taking their battle to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. That decision became a national precedent when the court agreed hospitals should be allowed to set their own criteria for membership on their medical staff.
Among other innovations were typewritten patient records, dating back to the 1920s. Having legible records has proved to be a boon decades later because it allowed for the study of many medical problems through research.
Other precedents were set in 1930 when the Gundersen practice was moved from over a downtown drug store to a new 17,000-square foot clinic building adjacent to the hospital so the doctors could be – "where the patients are."
National attention came to Lutheran Hospital in 1961 when every patient and every staff member was evacuated safely after a three-alarm fire broke out on the first floor. What brought the attention, however, was the carefully laid safety plans that had been put into place shortly before the event. Other hospitals wanted to model their own plans after what Lutheran had done.
It was clear Gundersen and Lutheran both served a market far larger than La Crosse, a reason both the clinic and hospital, which is now licensed for 325 beds, had expanded multiple times in their histories.
Admittedly, there were some tax benefits when three physician sons of Gundersen Clinic founder Adolf Gundersen, MD, created Gundersen Medical Foundation in 1944 as a tribute to their parents (it is now known as Gundersen Medical Foundation).
However, the Foundation's education and later research opportunities not only made it possible to keep staff members up to date in the latest in medicine, they could also attract specialists and subspecialists from universities and large cities. These specialists found they appreciated the high quality and compassionate medicine practiced here, along with the opportunity to teach and perform research.
The availability of medical specialists led to outstanding opportunities for patients and providers alike … open heart surgery and the Gundersen Heart Institute, which was ranked as one of the 100 best in the nation … the Gundersen Cancer Center which brings national and even international treatments here even before they are fully approved … the second renal dialysis unit in the state … comprehensive rehabilitative medicine services … obstetrical care and Wisconsin's first nurse-midwifery service … lifesaving surgery for bariatric patients … and much more.
In 1995, Gundersen Clinic and Lutheran Hospital-La Crosse formed Gundersen Lutheran, Inc. In 2013 the organization was renamed Gundersen Health System.