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Rochester's first female surgeon reflects on her career

Dr. Linda Chao Butterfield joined Olmsted Medical Group in 1979, becoming the first woman to work as an ophthalmologic surgeon there.

Dr. Linda Chao Butterfield, a retired ophthalmologist, is pictured in her home Tuesday, March 14, 2023, in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

ROCHESTER — Dr. Linda Chao Butterfield remembers the very first surgery she performed after she joined Olmsted Medical Group in 1979. Butterfield, an ophthalmologist, performed an intraocular lens implantation on a patient at Olmsted Community Hospital in Rochester.

"After I did my first case of intraocular lens implantation and put in the implant, the nurses said, 'Why don't you take the patient back to her room? Because, you know, she's a very special patient.'"

Butterfield took the patient up the elevator to the hospital's second floor. When the doors opened, they were met with a crowd.

"I saw the hallway was just lined with hospital employees and even patients, so they were all clapping and cheering us, and it was an unforgettable day," Butterfield said.

Born in China and raised in Chicago, Butterfield spent almost three decades with Olmsted Medical Center, leaving a legacy in Rochester's medical community.


Envisioning ophthalmology

Butterfield and her family moved to the U.S. in 1959 when she was a child. A year earlier, her father had died in a military conflict between Taiwan and China. After his death, instead of taking a pension from the government, Butterfield said her mother took a lump sum payment.

"Then she lost all that money by trusting relatives," she said. "They said, 'Oh, well, I'll manage for this for you,' and so on."

Growing up poor in southwest Chicago, Butterfield said she was no stranger to hard work. When it was time to go to college, she earned a full ride at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign studying chemistry and physics.

"It was a really tumultuous time on campus," she said. "It was between 1966 and 1970, and there were demonstrations everywhere."

Some of those protests criticized Dow Chemical Company, which manufactured the napalm used in the Vietnam War. This turned Butterfield away from a career in chemistry.

"I went over to talk to the dean — Julian Frankenberg was his name, a wonderful guy," Butterfield said. "He said, 'You got the grades, why don't you apply to medical school?' And I go, 'Really? I never thought about it.'"

Frankenberg referred Butterfield to Albert Schweitzer's books, and after Butterfield decided to apply to medical school, Frankenberg helped her apply to five schools. She ended up at the University of Chicago.

"Nowadays, they say more than half the medical class are women, which is great," Butterfield said. "But at that time when I entered in 1970, there were 90 students in my class and only 10 were women."


In spite of the gender imbalance, Butterfield said the faculty in her medical program were very supportive.

Before Butterfield pursued ophthalmology as her specialty, cardiac surgery had caught her eye.

"It was the first time our hospital at U of C got a heart-lung bypass machine to do heart surgery, and it was so new. When I rotated through cardiology, I was so excited about it, so I was telling all of my professors, 'I want to be a cardiac surgeon.' And then they go, 'Christ, this woman, she doesn't know her limits,'" she said with a laugh.

When Butterfield's ophthalmology rotation came around, she said her love for physics made studying optics exciting for her. She decided to pursue a career in that specialty, which involves advanced medical and surgical training in order to treat a wide range of conditions affecting the eyes. After graduating from medical school, Butterfield went on to complete an ophthalmology research fellowship at Harvard University and three years of surgical residency at Yale University.

Reaching Rochester

As is the case for many physicians, Butterfield ended up in Rochester because of Mayo Clinic. Her husband, allergist and immunologist Dr. Joseph Butterfield, joined Mayo Clinic, where he still works today. Then Linda applied to work there.

"When I interviewed at Mayo for a job, they offered me three different jobs, but I couldn't do surgery," she said. "So I was thinking, 'Oh, no,' because that's what I was trained for."

She turned to what was then known as Olmsted Medical Group, where she met Dr. James Hartfield and OMG founder Dr. Harold "Hal" Wente. When Butterfield joined OMG's small, but growing, clinical staff, she became the group's first female ophthalmological surgeon.

Mayo Clinic would hire its first female surgeon, colorectal surgeon Dr. Heidi Nelson, in 1989.


By the time Butterfield became an eye surgeon, the field was already seeing great advances in care, such as Dr. Harold Ridley's invention of artificial lenses that could be surgically implanted into the eyes of people who had cataracts removed.

"He designed the first intraocular lens, and he implanted the first one in 1949," Butterfield said. "Initially, the medical community was so against it, because for centuries, surgeons just took stuff out of the body. He was the first one to put something in the body. It was totally so against conventional wisdom."

In the 1990s, when Butterfield was well into her medical career, another advancement in ophthalmology came to the forefront: laser refractive surgery, also known as LASIK. Butterfield sought laser surgery training at the Phillips Eye Institute in Minneapolis. She recalled how the physicians there would volunteer to supervise her surgeries as she learned new techniques.

"That was the example of camaraderie and the respect that people had for each other, and it was great," she said. "Later on, when I had time, I'd just go in and sit with the younger surgeons. It's just nice to have you there in case there's a question or something unusual happens."

Butterfield also conducted research while working in Rochester. After OMG became Olmsted Medical Center and the new entity opened its Department of Research in 1990, Butterfield had the opportunity to conduct clinical research with Dr. Barbara Yawn.

"They say the three pillars of a good institution are patient care, research and education, and so I had a chance to do research," she said. "It was a privilege."

Ultimately, Butterfield's surgical career came to an end in 2008. A few years before her retirement, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and heart disease and underwent treatment at Mayo Clinic. But that didn't stop her medical education.

"After the treatment, I was admitted to the University of Chicago, where I went to med school, in the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics," Butterfield said. "That was interesting, because it allowed me to learn about medical ethics in so many issues. So, I was able to be a visiting professor at different places."


A medical legacy

Throughout her career, Butterfield said she never felt ostracized in Rochester as a female, Asian American physician.

"With so many people helping out, I will say, to grow my practice here and being an Asian American woman, but I never met, really, any prejudice," she said. "I really do believe that people don't care what race, what gender or what skin color the doctor is. All they want is a doctor that's competent, that cares for them and that's available. That's been my experience, anyway."

Butterfield built deep relationships with her non-physician colleagues: ophthalmic technicians, surgical assistants, nurses.

"Doug, Brenda, Leslie, Joni, Gae, Renelle and Alex," she said. "They were so good, such conscientious workers, and most of them stayed with me for over 20 years."

After her retirement, Butterfield contributed opinion columns to the Post Bulletin as a member of the Editorial Advisory Board under the direction of Greg Sellnow.

"Sexism took other forms, and there were negative predictions on how women medical students would be treated by the nursing staff," Butterfield recalled in a 2011 Post Bulletin column about female friendships in medicine. "As it turned out, these stereotypes could not have been further from the truth."

Medicine was very different 40 years ago. When I entered medical school in 1970, the hierarchy was clear. At the top were doctors and chief administrators; almost all of them were men. In the lower ranks were nurses, technicians, and other support staff, mostly women.

Along the way, as the Butterfields advanced their careers, they started a family. Butterfield and her husband, Joe, had three sons, and she said they kept busy with their sons' activities.

"We volunteered for coaching and everything else, bringing coffee and donuts," Butterfield said. "I was interested in being with kids instead of sitting on another committee."


She tutored math and science through the Boys & Girls Club of Rochester and judged science fairs, while Joe went camping with the boys when they were in Cub Scouts.

The Butterfields also bonded around music. Joe plays violin, Linda plays piano and their children joined the proverbial family band on different instruments.

"It was a busy life, mostly involving the kids and their activities," she said. "It has just been a wonderful life here."

And while Butterfield said she and her husband didn't push their kids to pursue careers in medicine, two of their sons are physicians. The third is in his third year of medical school.

When she looks back on her life, Butterfield, 75, has fond memories of her career at OMC and the community she built in Rochester.

"It's been a very positive experience," she said. "And I think women will succeed in surgery. There's no reason they can't."

Dené K. Dryden is the Post Bulletin's health care reporter. She previously covered the Southeast Minnesota region for the Post Bulletin. Dené's a graduate of Kansas State University, where she cut her teeth working for the student newspaper, the Kansas State Collegian, and the student radio station, Wildcat 91.9. Readers can reach Dené at 507-281-7488 and ddryden@postbulletin.com.
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