Fred Stahmann, M.D.
Teacher and Generous Supporter of USD Sanford School of Medicine
Dr. Fred Stahmann traveled a roundabout route to become the first certified Ob-Gyn in South Dakota.
Born and raised in Utah, Stahmann earned an undergraduate degree from Brigham Young University (BYU) before enrolling in the two-year medical program at the University of Utah. He finished his medical degree at Northwestern’s medical school in Chicago. Stahmann was a man who early on became accustomed to long hours of rigorous work, a perfect training for the type of medical practice he would later develop in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. During his undergraduate years he worked summers and holidays as an underground miner – a “mucker” in the parlance of those in the mining industry – in a Utah silver and lead mine. Muckers shoveled raw ore into mining carts. “It was,” he reported many years later, “hard and dangerous work.”
During his senior year at BYU, Stahmann wrote an essay about mining for a writing competition sponsored by the Utah mining industry. His experience in the mines paid off, as he won the contest’s $450 top prize. That money paid much of his expenses for his first year of medical school.
To pay for his second year of medical school Stahmann was forced to leave Utah because the depression in 1931 had crippled the state’s economy. He felt fortunate to find work as part of a small crew servicing oil rigs in California.
While awaiting entrance into Northwestern for his third year of medical school, the entrepreneurial Stahmann invented a woolen blanket enterprise, purchasing raw lamb’s wool from Utah farmers and providing it to a nearby blanket manufacturing business. Then he’d peddle the finished blankets to eager and satisfied customers, and transformed a tidy profit into yet another year of medical school.
In Chicago, Stahmann worked for a small hospital in the emergency room, aided a practicing surgeon and worked as a guide and guard at the newly opened 1933 world’s fair. After graduating and completing an internship and a residency he opened an Ob-Gyn practice in Peoria, Illinois.
It was in Peoria that Stahmann met a student nurse who, by school rules, was forbidden to date doctors. But shortly after her graduation, Mary Thompson and Stahmann were married and their two sons, Robert and Fred, were born during the early years of their marriage.
The outbreak of World War II had Stahmann enlisting as a physician and eventually being transferred to Sioux Falls in May 1944, where he served a military base that trained radio operators. His assignment there was to provide care for the WACs and WAVEs and nurses stationed there. A year after arriving in South Dakota, Stahmann passed the accreditation exam prepared by the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology, becoming the first Ob-Gyn physician in that state to gain certification.
Stahmann and Mary liked Sioux Falls, and decided to sell their home in Peoria and relocate to South Dakota’s largest city. By 1947 their third child, a daughter named Mary, was born, and the couple settled into a home they built in a pleasant neighborhood. It was a booming time for a new Ob-Gyn, and Stahmann delivered 300 babies a year for the next 15 years.
Stahmann’s weekly schedule was hectic and crowded, starting early each morning and concluding with rounds in both local hospitals after supper alongside his family each evening. “He took his Hippocratic oath seriously,” explained Mary, his daughter. As he built his practice he became known for his expertise regarding fertility issues and problematic pregnancies.
Stahmann was a founding member of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology as well as the South Dakota Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology. In 1950 he served as president of the Sioux Valley Hospital medical staff, and also served as chair of the Ob-Gyn departments at Sioux Valley and McKennan hospitals. The National Cancer Society asked him to serve on their board of directors, and he gladly did so. In addition to his work as an associate professor at the USD school of medicine he also taught nursing students at the Sioux Valley School of Nursing. All of these impressive duties happened while he served a number of civic-minded institutions and organizations in Sioux Falls.
In addition to those numerous obligations, he found time to hunt, fish, bird-watch, golf, and later – in his retirement – painstakingly carve hundreds of birds from wood. He loved vacationing with his wife and family.
A diagnosis of probable cancer in his esophagus convinced Stahmann to transition toward retirement from active clinical practice in 1973, and two years later he joined the faculty of the USD medical school’s newly opened four-year program, commencing a part of his career he found rewarding and delightful. “Teaching medical students has always been enjoyable,” he later wrote, “and very likely if an academic career had been possible after graduation and hospital training, I definitely would have considered teaching rather than clinical practice.”
His daughter fondly remembered how her father emphasized education. “Not only did he encourage and value education for his own children,” Mary recalled, “including setting up accounts to pay for college for each of us, but he also helped fund college educations for his grandchildren and great grandchildren.” Her father, she added, established nine separate scholarship funds, including two each at the University of South Dakota and South Dakota State University, as well as single scholarships at Augustana University, the University of Sioux Falls, Northwestern University and Brigham Young University. “He even set up a scholarship for students at my mom’s high school in Missouri,” she said.
Stahmann’s generous support for students included medical students at the USD Sanford School of Medicine. In 2001 he founded the Dr. Fred S. and Mary E. Stahmann Scholarship Endowment for Native Americans. It was the first endowment created specifically for Native American students at the medical school, and it would be activated after his death. In 2007, at the age of 97, Dr. Stahmann passed away. Two years later the endowment’s first scholarship recipient was identified. Since then seven different recipients have benefitted from his Native American scholarship fund.
As a gift for establishing the scholarship fund Native American students at the medical school presented Dr. Stahmann with a star quilt. It became a favorite of his, and in his final days he’d wrap that quilt around himself, seeking warmth and comfort. This was a man who knew a good blanket when he held one.