There was a time in my life when I was obsessed with filmmaking. It’s not a unique story, as many people would love to be the next Steven Spielberg or Wes Anderson. While these filmmakers have been able to create their own iconic style, they have not achieved the honor of having a camera move named after them. But, every editing software I’ve ever used has a feature labeled “Ken Burns.”
The “Ken Burns” is a camera move where the camera focuses on an item, such as an old letter or photograph. This technique, accompanied by elegant narration and interviews with subject matter experts, is associated with documentarian Ken Burns, who has produced several award-winning documentaries, including “The Civil War” and “Prohibition.” But, in his most recent documentary, “The Mayo Clinic: Faith – Hope – Science,” which aired on Sept. 25, Burns choose to step further than the content he’s made before. Going further than just telling us a story about the past and focusing more on how that event impacted the future.
“The Mayo Clinic” does begin in the style that Burns is known for, with vintage photographs and historians discussing the Mayo family’s creation of their world famous hospital in Rochester, Minn. The hospital was started by William Worrall Mayo and his two sons almost by accident. Following a tornado in 1883, Dr. Mayo and his sons stepped in to help the relief efforts. They were assisted by the nearby Sisters of Saint Francis, who were able to provide nursing care. The Sisters, led by Mother Alfred Moes, began to believe that this was their calling: to build a hospital and care for patients. Mother Moes asked Dr. Mayo to serve as attending physician. Thus we have the beginnings of the Mayo Clinic.
Unlike Ken Burns’ other subjects, the Mayo Clinic is still in operation today. While there is 130 years of interesting history, Burns is able to combine this with an examination of today’s Mayo Clinic. He interviews current patients of the clinic receiving state of the art therapies that weren’t available six months ago, much less in the 19th century. He also discusses the impact of some of the choices the Mayo family made; like having their staff and doctors on salary, as opposed to being compensated based on billing. The story of the hospital’s evolution over 130 years is also the story of the evolution of medicine and the health professions over 130 years. You see that the Mayo Clinic was one of the first hospitals to focus on ways to avoid infection, having surgeons wash hands and equipment before operating. You see the Sisters of St. Francis focused on caring for anyone, without regards to their race, religion or ability to pay and the current nursing staff continuing on in this tradition.
I’ll admit, Ken Burns documentaries do lack the glamour of some of the new Netflix documentaries like “Take Your Pills” or “The Bleeding Edge,” which combine bright colors and animations into traditional storytelling. But, Ken Burns is so good that he doesn’t really need any of these bells and whistles, he lets the story and the images he provides speak for themselves, providing us a beautiful insight into one small slice of history.