'I had three careers: medicine, the Boy Scouts, and the Army'

George Allen—a retired Mayo Clinic rheumatologist who practiced medicine for 40 years, a local Scout leader, a Brigadier General—looks back at a life of science and service.

Retired Brig. Gen. George Allen
Retired Brig. Gen. George Allen on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022, in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

In 1943, at 13 years old, George Allen cracked the thick spine of Helen Clapesattle’s The Doctors Mayo. Recently published, the 800-page book chronicled the lives of Dr. W.W. Mayo, his sons, Dr. Will and Dr. Charlie, and the founding of the Mayo Clinic.

As he read, George says, he became “entranced” with the story of Dr. W.W. Mayo mortgaging his family’s home to buy a microscope for his patients. The field of bacteriology was just getting started when W.W. Mayo risked it all, and the bold action impressed the young George.

“Everybody thought he was crazy,” he says. “That’s sort of funny that, in that little town, somebody would do that. Isn’t that amazing?”

As he recounts the story today, Dr. George L. Allen, Sr. sits in his study at the Charter House apartment that he shares with Dorothy, his wife of 63 years. It’s a rare sunny morning in mid-December, and the couple is busy preparing to head to Colorado Springs, where they spend a portion of the year, before the holidays start. Along one wall of the study, the wooden shelves are lined with various works of art, family photos, and awards, quiet mementos of a life of service.

From a stack of papers on his desk, Dr. Allen pulls out a photo. It’s his official portrait from 1977, when he was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General in the Army Medical Corps. We settle in to talking about his life, and Dr. Allen begins: “My wife says I had three careers: medicine, the Boy Scouts, and the Army.”


“In those days you made your own fun”

George L. Allen was born in Colorado Springs in July 1930, minutes before his twin brother, Phillip. Their mother, Ruth, was an instructor at a local school and taught piano lessons. Their father, Newell, had worked in sales, but during the instability of the Great Depression the company he worked for went out of business. The small family—George’s parents and their firstborn, Frank—moved in with Ruth’s parents in Colorado Springs.

“I tell my mother it’s probably a good thing that the Depression didn’t start earlier, because I probably wouldn’t be here,” Dr. Allen says.

Allen’s father headed to the Detroit area to look for work while his mother and the three boys stayed behind. His father opened up an office supply and printing shop in downtown Detroit. By the mid-1930s, the rest of the family joined him in Birmingham, Mich., a small town in the lake-dotted region north of the big city.

As a child, Allen recalls riding bicycles with his brothers and the other young neighborhood boys around the town. They played pickup baseball in summers, and scraped snow off the frozen surface of the big lake to play hockey in winters. “In those days you made your own fun,” he says.

Every other summer, Ruth and the boys went back to the grandparents’ house in Colorado Springs. There, the boys slept out on the sleeping porch on the second floor of the house. In the middle of the night, young George could sit up in bed and see the broad summit of Pikes Peak, which rises over 14,000 feet above sea level in the Rocky Mountains. (Later in life, when he and Dorothy discussed building a home in Colorado Springs, they settled on a spot that afforded the same view.)

Retired Brig. Gen. George Allen
George Allen’s official portrait from 1977, when he was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General in the Army Medical Corps.
Contributed / Retired Brig. Gen.

In 1942, at age 12, Allen joined the Boy Scouts. By then, the United States had entered World War II. With his scouting troop, Allen participated in scrap drives, during which they encouraged people to donate scrap metals, paper, rubber and cloth to be recycled and repurposed into weapons, planes, ships or other items. About once a month, Allen says, “We’d go on a truck through the neighborhoods and blow the horn. And if people had stuff that they wanted to get us, we’d go in their garage or basement, pick it up and put it in the truck.”

The following year is when Allen read Clapesattle’s book on the Mayos, which shifted the course of his life. That book, he says, led to a life in science. After reading about W.W. Mayo, he knew, Allen says, that he wanted to pursue a career in scientific service. Maybe, he figured, he’d even work at Mayo Clinic one day.

But Allen also credits his uncle, Dr. Philip Brown, with fostering his burgeoning interest in the field of medicine.


Dr. Brown was working at Mayo Hospital in 1942 when his unit was called up to the military and he headed overseas to the South Pacific. From various field hospitals, he communicated with his family back in the U.S. via Victory Mail, or V-mail—a system in which letters were photographed so that tiny microfilm slides, rather than bulky letters, could be transported back and forth.

Allen recalls one letter in particular that his uncle sent when he was stationed in New Guinea. “He would write how muggy and rainy it was, and how the conditions under which you had to treat the wounded were really quite extreme,” he says. “But like so many things in those days, people really didn’t complain a great deal about things. They’d say, ‘It’s hot and muggy, and I’d rather be home.’ And leave it at that.”

By age 15, Allen earned the rank of Eagle Scout. A few years after the war ended, he enrolled in the University of Michigan and joined the ROTC. (His twin brother Philip went to Michigan State. “Our arch rival,” he jokes). George graduated with his bachelors in 1952, majoring in chemistry. He stayed on for four more years to complete his medical degree.

In 1946, George met Dorothy Hammett on a blind date set up by his twin brother, Philip. “He was one of these people that was always working a deal somewhere,” Allen says. “If there was a girl around, he would meet her.”

Philip had been at a small airport in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula when he spotted a girl standing next to a plane. He walked over to introduce himself. The girl’s father owned the plane, she said, and she promised him a ride. Later, the boys’ father, Newell Allen, got tickets for the twins to see If the Shoe Fits at the Shubert Theatre in Detroit. Philip called up the girl, who lived in Ann Arbor, to invite her to the show—with one condition: She find a date for his twin brother. And that’s how George Allen met Dorothy.

George and Dorothy married in 1954, the same year Dorothy finished her degree in Business Administration. (Dorothy would later open a small book and gift shop in Rochester.) In 1956, Allen completed medical school. That spring, George and Dorothy welcomed their firstborn, Ralph, on Easter Sunday.

Dorothy Hammett Allen and Dr. George Leighton Allen married Sept. 11, 1954 in Ann Arbor, Mich.

After medical school, Allen returned to Colorado to complete an internship at Fitzsimons General Hospital. Located east of Denver, it was then one of the largest military hospitals in the United States. The center was established in 1918 as a primary treatment center for tuberculosis, at a time when one treatment recommendation had been to seek out the sunny skies and crisp mountain air of places like western Colorado.

As an intern, Allen rotated through the departments of surgery, internal medicine, OBGYN, pediatrics, dermatology, and ENT. It was a busy hospital, he says. Case in point? “I had the least deliveries of any intern that year,” Allen says. “I only delivered 74 kids.”


One evening, toward the end of his year at Fitzsimons, Allen was chatting with one of his fellow interns at the hospital. The other intern confessed that he didn’t feel ready to take on a residency.

“I don’t know what I really want to do,” Allen recalls him saying. “I said, ‘I’m the same way.’” They both wanted to get more experience before deciding which field of medicine to specialize in. “So we both volunteered [to serve overseas in the military], and we both went to Germany,” he says.

Serving overseas, honing his medical craft

Dorothy was pregnant again, and so she waited until their daughter Ruth was born to join her husband in Bamberg, roughly 60 miles north of Nuremberg in the region of Bavaria. Allen had been assigned to the Seventh Cavalry squadron as a battalion surgeon. The squadron did reconnaissance on the border of what was then East Germany and Czechoslovakia, and Dr. Allen rotated through four main locations during the week before reporting back to Bamberg on the weekends. At the base, Allen also cared for the dependents and kids of the GIs stationed there.

“We were very busy,” Allen says. “Saturday nights were terrible, particularly after payday, because guys would get downtown, get in fights and do all kinds of things. So you’d sew them up.”

Having been in the active reserves during medical school, Allen was more familiar with military protocol than some of the other doctors stationed there, he says. “Most of the people in the unit I was in did not know that I had a commission in the infantry,” he says. “They just assumed I was a dumb doctor that had been drafted.” That assumption would prompt some of the GIs to try to “hoodwink you into all kinds of things,” Allen says.

One occasional scenario he recalls was when a GI would come down with some mysterious ailment that prevented them from serving on guard duty or KP duty. “I would say, ‘You’re right, you really shouldn’t be on duty, so let’s do this: I’ll put you on quarters [in other words, stay in the barracks], but it’s going to last long enough that you won’t be able to go off post [leave the base] this weekend.’” Sometimes, those words were just the medicine they needed to feel better.

But Allen also saw a number of more serious problems, ranging from psychological issues to venereal disease. At one point, he recalls seeing an increasing number of cases of gonorrhea among the GIs. He suspected the men knew they had a venereal disease, but for some reason weren’t seeking treatment. “It can be a real nasty disease if it’s not treated,” he says. Allen found out that one company commander was allegedly punishing GIs who had come down with VD by restricting them to the base for a month, he says. “They couldn’t get a pass, couldn’t go anywhere.”

Allen knew that Army policy prohibited disciplining GIs for VD, so he went to talk with the commander and told him that such punishment wasn’t allowed. “So that officer never did like me very much, but that was his problem, not mine,” Allen says. “I was there to take care of the troops.”


After serving 16 months as battalion surgeon, Dr. Allen was transferred to 97th General Hospital in Frankfurt. Around that time, he decided that he wanted to specialize in internal medicine. “I liked getting to analyze a problem and figure out what’s really going on,” he says.

After a year and a half in Frankfurt, Dr. Allen applied for a residency. In 1960, the Army sent him to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

Over the next three years, he completed his residency in internal medicine, and took a special interest in rheumatology. The Army then assigned him to Brook General Hospital at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, where he set up rheumatology clinics and treated children who had arthritic and rheumatic diseases.

At Brook General, Dr. Allen worked alongside Dr. Eddy Palmer, the head of the medicine department in gastroenterology. Dr. Palmer had served in Europe in WWII, where he had learned about endoscopy. He later helped develop a new kind of endoscope and popularize the procedure in the U.S. “That’s the kind of people you’re around” in a place like Brook General Hospital, Dr. Allen says. “People don’t think of military medicine like that. These guys are really tremendous.”

“Everything was a combat zone”

In June 1966, Dr. Allen received orders to report to Vietnam. By then, Dorothy and George had four children at home. “My wife has always been very resilient,” Allen says.

Dorothy had long been familiar with periods of separation from family members. Her father, an architecture professor at the University of Michigan, had served in WWII as one of the Monuments Men, described as “a small corps of men and women who found and recovered artworks stolen by the Nazis.” He had been stationed in Europe between 1943 and 1945.

Now, as Allen reported to the 93rd evacuation hospital in South Vietnam, Dorothy and the children stayed in San Antonio. Allen had just been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and served as the Chief of Medicine, Chief of Professional Services and the Deputy Commander of the hospital. The facility was located within a large logistical base, Allen says. “Everything was a combat zone,” he recalls. Outside the hospital, the Viet Cong “blew things up every once in a while, with shrapnel raining outside on anyone who wasn’t protected.” Luckily, Allen escaped injury.

At the hospital, Allen and his colleagues treated troops for various types of malaria, scrub typhus and other tropical diseases. “A quiet night on the ward was nobody had a fever over 105,” he recalls. “I mean, these guys were really sick.”


During the ramping up of American troops in the war, Allen helped train incoming military doctors on how to treat various tropical diseases before they went out to their respective hospitals. Doctors would’ve encountered these in medical textbooks, of course, Allen says. But he wanted to be sure that the incoming physicians would’ve “seen these things and knew what to expect.”

Even overseas, Allen found connections to Rochester. One disease that he saw while serving at the military hospital was known as blackwater fever, a serious complication of malaria that had to be treated with dialysis, which was still then still somewhat of a novel procedure.

Dr. James Donadio, one of the physicians who worked on the dialysis unit at the field hospital in Saigon, had just completed his residency at Mayo Clinic before he received his orders to report to Vietnam. Allen recalls spending a lot of time on the phone with Donadio as they both worked on treating patients. (In 2017, Donadio published a book about his experience in Vietnam, titled From Mayo Clinic to Vietnam: Memoirs of a Physician Serving in the War.)

Back to Mayo Clinic: “I wasn’t afraid of administration.”

After a year in Vietnam, Allen returned to San Antonio, where he now served as Deputy Chief of the Department of Medicine at the Brook Army Medical Center. But within a year, the head of rheumatology at Mayo Clinic invited him to join the staff there.

In October 1968, George and Dorothy moved to Rochester, and George took a joint appointment in pediatrics and adult rheumatology. He resigned his commission in the regular Army and accepted a reserve commission. “And my wife thought that was OK,” he says.

While they were still in Texas, the older Allen children had joined their local scouting troops. Now settling in Rochester, George became active with his sons in the Boy Scouts, too, volunteering as a scoutmaster and later serving in various positions in southeast Minnesota’s Gamehaven Council and at the national level.

The family moved into a new house they had built on Folwell Drive. And George and Dorothy welcomed their fifth child, George Jr., on George Sr.’s birthday in 1969. (The name was his wife’s idea, he says.)

Now in the reserves, Allen joined the 5501st U.S. Army Hospital at Fort Snelling. While serving in the Medical Corps, he was later promoted to full colonel and, eventually, to the rarefied rank of brigadier general. From 1978-1982, he served as the Commanding Officer of the 5501st, which made him responsible for medical units in that command area (including North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa).


Allen also took on various roles at Mayo. “I wasn’t afraid of administration; I had fun doing it,” he says. Soon after he arrived in Rochester, he chaired the second-year medical clerkship, and would go on to chair the second-year Medical School Curriculum Committee. Starting in 1985, Dr. Allen served as the dean for the School of Health Related Sciences. He’d hold that post until 1990, which was the same year he retired from the military.

“I don’t go through life wanting to be remembered as anything, just wanting to be a good human being.”

Throughout his retirement, Allen stayed active with the Boy Scouts. He served on the organization’s National Health and Safety Committee before taking over as chairman. In 1993, he served as a subcamp chairman for the National Scout Jamboree, a gathering of scouts from across the country that only occurs every four years. That year, the jamboree drew over 30,000 scouts to Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia.

As subcamp chairman, Allen was responsible for helping coordinate food, first aid, and more for over 1,000 boys. “So it’s a big job,” he says, then follows up with a characteristic understatement. “But that worked out fine.”

Over the years, in his free time, he enjoyed fishing on the Mississippi and doing yard work. Today, at 92, he laments that he is limited physically. “I can’t do stuff like I used to,” he says. Though he and Dorothy, who split their time between Colorado Springs and Rochester, still enjoy playing bridge and taking part in other activities at the Charter House.

Dorothy and George on one of their numerous trips to Colorado.

Over the several hours that I spoke with Allen, he doesn’t mention the awards he’d garnered in the military. But a 2014 article in the Post Bulletin detailing his induction into the Founders Hall of the North Star Museum of Boy Scouting and Girl Scouting also noted that he’d been awarded the Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal, Bronze Star, and Army Commendation Medal during his service with the Medical Corps.

Allen received many accolades from the Boy Scouts as well, from Scoutmaster of the Year (1982) to the Silver Buffalo award (2004).

Toward the end of our first conversation, I ask Dr. Allen how he’d like his family to remember him. He seems to skirt the question. “You never know how much of a model you are,” he says, before moving on to talk about what his grandchildren and great-grandchildren were up to.

The second time we talk, the holidays have passed. He and Dorothy had recently had more than 30 family members to their Colorado Springs home to celebrate Dorothy’s 90th birthday. Over the phone, I press him a little more: What would he like to be remembered for?

“That’s a very difficult question,” he says. “Extremely difficult. Because you do a lot of things throughout life because you have to, and you do a lot of things because you love doing them. And sometimes it’s hard to divide those up. So I don’t quite know how to answer that question. I don’t go through life wanting to be remembered as anything, just wanting to be a good human being.”

We chat a little more about what that might mean, to his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, before he settles on an answer that he seems satisfied with. “You’d like to be remembered as a person who loved and cared for people,” he says. “And that can be reflected in many, many different ways. And I don’t know how else to say it except based upon having good family, a good wife, and [being a] good Christian.”

Back in December, as our conversation stretches into the early afternoon, the sun hides behind a haze of cloud. I can hear Dorothy puttering around outside the office. “I’ve had a good time in life,” Dr. Allen reflects. “I’ve always wanted to be busy.” He pauses and smiles. “And I’ve got a wife that’s put up with it.”

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