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Grand Rapids medical pioneer, oldest living Olivet College alumnus to celebrate 100th birthday
May 31, 2013

Retired cardiothoracic surgeon Richard Rasmussen, M.D., who performed the first open heart surgery in West Michigan, will celebrate his 100th birthday Tuesday, June 4. A longtime resident of Grand Rapids, Rasmussen is also Olivet College’s oldest living alumnus, having graduated from the college in 1935.

Widely considered a pioneer in his specialty, Rasmussen has contributed greatly over several decades to the advances of cardiothoracic surgery. He spent his career in Grand Rapids, serving on the consulting staff at Blodgett, Butterworth and St. Mary’s hospitals. He is also a retired surgeon of West Michigan Cardiothoracic Surgeons PLC.

In 1948, battlefield trained Rasmussen returned from active naval duty to perform West Michigan’s first successful aortic splice on a little girl at Blodgett Memorial Hospital. The first such surgery, which involved cutting out a piece of congenitally narrowed aorta, had been done only four years prior in Sweden.

Rasmussen and Clair Basinger, M.D., visited clinics in Cleveland and Minneapolis in 1956 where researchers, ahead of manufacturers, had built their own heart-lung machines. The two cardiac surgeons made notes, took pictures, bought parts and descended into Rasmussen’s basement where they began building their own model. When their prototype heart-lung machine was complete, it was so big they had to demolish a wall to get it out of the basement. On Nov. 11, 1958, Rasmussen and Basinger used their heart-lung machine to complete the first open heart surgery in West Michigan.

Rasmussen’s road to the operating table began at Olivet College in 1931, during the Great Depression. He received a scholarship to Olivet, and along with steady work in the school’s cafeteria, was able to pay the $125 per semester for tuition.

Influenced by a family doctor, Rasmussen determined he would go to medical school if given the opportunity. He later graduated from the University of Chicago, and after completing an internship in Grand Rapids, returned to the Windy City to finish his surgical training and research.

In 1942, Rasmussen joined the United States Navy in the midst of World War II. After spending 21 months on a base in the western Aleutian Islands with a Navy construction battalion, he was sent to the Great Lakes Naval Hospital in Illinois, where he performed chest surgeries on injured soldiers.

Rasmussen retired from surgery in 1983, but has remained active in the medical community. He was an early advocate against tobacco use in the public and political arenas, an effort he continues still, and remains connected with a number of professional medical organizations.

He also remains connected to Olivet College. As trustee emeritus, he established the Rasmussen-Reames Pre-Medical Scholarship, in memory of his college roommate and medical colleague, Harold Reames. He also continues to attend board meetings when possible. In addition, he has supported several campus initiatives throughout the years.

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