The glassblowers of Mayo Clinic
100 years. Three Glassblowers in Residence.
At the Mayo Clinic Glass Shop—a small basement-level nook in the Mayo Medical Sciences building where the counters twinkle with glass creations the likes of which we’d never seen before—Steve Anderson is turning glass into scientific creations.
To conjure up a mental image of a glass-blown work would likely bring to mind something similar for everyone: colorful, vibrant, abstract art pieces, vases, figurines. While beautiful, the appreciation of these works often stops at decoration, or perhaps a dedicated but limited purpose like the holding of flower bouquets, the catchall of earrings, trinkets and baubles, or the ornamenting of a Christmas tree.
Far less known is the type of glassblowing that lives in the space where art and science meet, and far fewer are the glassblowers that dedicate their work to function like Anderson—the Mayo Clinic Glass Shop Senior Scientific Glassblower.
He is, he says, bringing experiments from concept to reality.
Anderson is most recently the one behind the torch, which has literally and figuratively only been passed two times at the Rochester facility in the last century.
Mayo Clinic has employed only two other Glassblowers in Residence since the Glass Shop officially opened in 1921.
Some of those glassblown pieces represent organs and structures within our body. Some are meant to help treat them. They’re all made in collaboration between Mayo’s physician, research, and/or engineering teams, crucially including one of the most unsung heroes of the clinic’s staff: its resident glassblower.
As a high schooler, the Rochester native saw scientific glassblowing featured in a Sunday St. Paul Pioneer Press article—”it was something like ‘Odd Jobs You’ve Never Heard Of,’” Anderson says. He happened to mention the story to some friends who worked at Mayo Clinic. They told him about the Glass Shop. Told him he should call and talk to someone there.
So he did. “I called up the switchboard at Mayo and asked for the Glass Shop,” Anderson says. “And they connected me.”
Anderson eventually set up a meeting with then-Mayo-glassblower Gordon Smith. Smith told Anderson that he loved glass blowing so much that being at the torch all day for work wasn’t enough, and he often went home to continue doing the same. “That’s when I thought that this might not be too bad,” recalls Anderson.
Anderson sent away for info on the only scientific glass technology program in the nation—Salem Community College in New Jersey. Soon, the 1977 Stewartville High School grad moved out to New Jersey to take classes at SCC.
After graduation from Salem in 1986, Anderson worked at multiple places across the country, including Greatglas Inc. in Delaware, Honeywell Inc. in Bloomington, Minn., Aldrich Chemical, and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
Often, when he’d return home to visit his parents in Stewartville, he’d meet up with Gordon Smith. “I told him I wanted to come back home and work here someday,” Anderson says. In the late 1990s, Smith told Anderson he’d be retiring soon. Encouraged Anderson to apply.
He did. And, in 1999, Anderson was hired as Mayo Clinic’s third Glassblower in Residence. He took that solo spot in Mayo’s Glass Shop—though the sign on the door, he says, officially reads “Glassblowing Services, Mechanical Development, Division of Engineering.”
In his former production jobs, Anderson usually made up to 30 replicas of the same piece. At Mayo, many of his creations are one-of-a-kind.
With Mayo being one of only a couple known medical facilities to host a resident glassblower and Anderson being one of only two known current scientific glassblowers in the State of Minnesota, Anderson feels he got lucky in finding such a niche profession in his hometown.
Perhaps Mayo is the lucky one to have secured Anderson’s talents for the last 20-plus years: In his tenure, he’s helped the clinic’s researchers turn hundreds of ideas into glassworks for use in laboratory research and experimentation.
Anderson can either create something completely new or modify an existing item made of glass, the latter of which is helpful because, as the glassblower explains, the cost of a simple beaker is multiplied ten-fold if being purchased with even the smallest adjustments like tubes and spouts.
“It gives [researchers] the option to have something made that’s specific to their research,” Anderson says. “I mainly work with researchers myself, but the machine shop and engineers, they’re working with a lot of patient-related products or things that doctors think up every day.”
Anderson’s position is part of Mayo’s Division of Engineering, a department of roughly 60 machiners, programmers, and engineers. In his one-man shop, Anderson receives orders for new projects or repairs, which can vary in complexity from fixing a broken spout to replicating aneurysms and arteries in the brain.
This craft takes a lot of practice, Anderson says, and time to master. Many of his creations are quite delicate, and the novice stage includes a lot of thrown-out material and botched projects. He’s had to have a lot of patience—and stubbornness, he adds, a quality that doesn’t hurt to have in his profession—to perfect the technique over the years.
“I mean, I drove all the way out to New Jersey and didn’t want to come home without learning something out there,” Anderson laughs. “I think the best thing that happened to me was getting a job at Aldrich Chemical Company in Milwaukee, where I worked in a shop with eight or 10 other glassblowers. They told me that, if you ever see anybody doing something you’ve never done before, feel free to take the time to watch and learn from them.”
Anderson is usually given a 3D model of the organic or arterial structure the researchers or physicians want him to recreate. He then creates a glass model to make the structure as anatomically correct as possible.
During the glassblowing process, he has to be careful to not under- or over-heat the glass, both of which have consequences.
His favorite creation has been the tissue bath, an apparatus that—according to literature courtesy of the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, W. Bruce Fye Center for the History of Medicine—is frequently used to maintain in vitro tissue in a temperature-controlled bath for physiological and pharmaceutical studies. The baths are intricate designs of many different glass tubes, arms, and spouts, and have been an evolving design since the first model made by Smith in the early ‘70s.
“They’re complicated and they’re challenging,” Anderson says of the tissue bath glass pieces. He has also forged glass training aids for stent placements—which are the vein and artery lookalikes found amongst the works on the shop’s counter. “[They] are quite interesting. I’d never done that type of work before. It’s almost a little bit artistic plus scientific. It’s sculpting plus glassblowing.”
Just because Anderson works in the realm of science doesn’t mean he’s without an artistic flair; his more art-forward creative works have been on display and for sale throughout Rochester. He displayed works at SEMVA for many years. You can find some of his blown-glass ornaments at James Krom Natural Images downtown.
Despite having been at the lathe for three decades, Anderson still feels a long way from being a master glass smith. From recreating the vasculature of the lungs to helping create structures that help Mayo neural engineers measure neurological activity in deep brain tissue, Anderson never knows what a new day in the basement of the Mayo Medical Sciences building will bring.
If there’s any takeaway for a modern version of young Anderson—for the kid reading a story about an unusual job—it’s that this career will keep you on your toes.
“Things that were so difficult when I first started out, I don’t think about anymore,” he says. “I’ve been doing it long enough that it should be second nature. But I still don’t feel like a master of it. It’s always challenging. Everything I do still has a bit of excitement to it.”
Historical research and writing by Karen Koka and Brooke Weber, Mayo Clinic W. Bruce Fye Center for the History of Medicine.
The glassblowers, 1920-1999
The founder of Mayo Clinic’s glassblowing.
And the first two Glassblowers in Residence.
“[Heck] taught me the first thing I ever knew about glassblowing”
Frank J. Heck (1897-1984)
Unofficial Glassblower, 1920-1921
Frank Heck may not have been an official Glassblower in Residence at Mayo Clinic, but he’s considered one of the founders of the department—and is mentioned in the clinic’s first documented reference to glassblowing.
Born in St. Paul in 1897, Frank Heck earned a B.S. degree from the University of Minnesota in 1919 and entered the Mayo Foundation as a Fellow in Physiological Chemistry in 1920.
Heck became first assistant in Clinical Chemistry for Dr. Arthur H. Sanford’s Section on Clinical Pathology. While in this service, he taught basic glassblowing techniques to Harry Nunamaker, who would become Mayo’s first resident glassblower. “[Heck] taught me the first thing I ever knew about glassblowing,” Nunamaker would say.
Heck left Mayo in 1921 to study at the University of Minnesota once more, receiving his B.M. and M.S. degrees in pathology in 1925 and his M.D. degree in 1926. That same year, he returned to Mayo Clinic as a fellow and joined the staff as a consultant in medicine in 1929.
Heck became well-known for expertise in diseases of the blood and was recognized as an authority on various types of anemia. He retired from Mayo Clinic in 1962, continuing to practice part-time as a senior staff physician at the Rochester State Hospital.
“There is no satisfactory substitute for glass.”
Harry I. Nunamaker (1902-1991)
Glassblower in Residence, 1922-1966
As a teenager, Harry Nunamaker wanted to play music.
Born and raised in the Plainview area, Nunamaker was described as an “exceptional trumpeter and accordionist.”
In 1921, he came to Rochester to play trumpet in the old Garden Theater. While he was here, his sister—a secretary at Mayo Clinic—encouraged the 19-year-old to “look into the possibilities for a young man at the Mayo Clinic.”
Harry set up a meeting with Dr. Edward Kendall (the future Nobel Prize winner), and was hired as an assistant in Kendall’s Biochemistry Laboratory.
Soon after, he met Frank J. Heck, an assistant in the Clinical Pathology Section, who taught him basic glassblowing techniques.
From the beginning, the delicate, intricate research equipment —so much of it glass — fascinated Heck. He began, he said, “coming down nights and monkeying around.”
Dr. Kendall then sent Nunamaker to the University of Minnesota to advance and refine his glassblowing skills.
When Nunamaker returned the next year, the 20-year-old became Mayo Clinic’s first Glassblower in Residence and began producing specialized equipment for Mayo’s doctors, researchers, and scientists.
Dr. Kendall’s 1928 Section on Biochemistry Annual Report noted that Nunamaker had “saved the Clinic a large amount of money in the preparation of special apparatus.”
In addition to creating custom glassware, he was also responsible for maintaining and repairing the standard glass equipment used in Mayo Clinic laboratories.
“He rotates the section of the tube to be shaped in the flame of the burner,” so went a description of Nunamaker at work in a 1952 article. “When it has reached the consistency of thick honey, the glass blower can bend it into any desired shape. He can blow a large bubble, then blow a bubble within the larger bubble. He can stretch it, loop it, narrow it, snip it off with ordinary scissors.”
Toward the end of his career, Nunamaker was producing or repairing approximately 28,000 pieces per year. After 45 years as a glassblower, he retired in 1966.
“[Glassblowing is] tedious, monotonous, and requires painstaking patience,” Nunamaker told the Post-Bulletin in 1963. “Only a person who really loves it stays with it after the novelty wears off.”
“There is no satisfactory substitute for glass.”
“Machines will never replace the custom work that human hands can do”
Gordon A. Smith
Glassblower in Residence, 1966-1999
Gordon Smith, who completed an apprenticeship under a Dutch master glassblower at the University of Minnesota, became Mayo Clinic’s glassblower after Harry Nunamaker’s retirement in 1966.
Like his predecessor, Smith collaborated with Mayo researchers to make innovative, customized glass equipment that was too expensive to purchase or did not even exist.
“Machines will never replace the custom work that human hands can do,” Smith said in a 1985 Mayovox article. As a member of the American Scientific Glassblowers Society (ASGS), Smith advocated for the training and support of those who specialized in producing glassware for scientific and medical purposes.
Smith also appreciated the artistic aspect of glassblowing and created glass figures such as flowers, animals, dancers, bells, and wedding cake toppers at home.
In 1992 the ASGS presented Smith with the Helmut E. Drechsel Achievement Award in recognition of his efforts to promote and preserve scientific glassblowing.
In 1995, FX TV’s “Breakfast Time,’’ a morning talk show, came to Rochester to visit with Smith, who showed off his work on national TV.
Time in a bottle
Mayo Clinic’s Glass Shop, through the years
1920: Frank J. Heck, a first assistant in physiological chemistry, starts his Mayo Foundation fellowship—which includes the clinic’s first documented reference to glassblowing—in Dr. Arthur H. Sanford’s Clinical Pathology Lab.
1922: Harry Nunamaker, the clinic’s first official Glassblower in Residence, begins working in the chemistry lab of future Nobel Prize winner Dr. Edward C. Kendall. Nunamaker later recalls that Heck taught him “the first thing I ever knew about glassblowing.”
1920s: The first Glass Shop is located in the eight-story Zumbro Hotel Annex near the corner of First Avenue and First Street SW.
1930: Dr. Kendall notes that Nunamaker “saves the Clinic several times his salary in the preparation of ampules and the repair of glass apparatus.”
1952: The Mayo Clinic Glass Shop
1955 (est.): Liver perfusion apparatus, early version [left].
1959: The first official glassblowing report notes that the Mayo Clinic Glass Shop has served “40 departments of the Clinic with fabrication or repair of 17,463 items.”
1963: “Nearly 28,000 fabricated or repaired items are processed for 86 departments, 30 grants and 2 outside accounts.”
1966: Gordon Smith takes over as Glassblower in Residence, replacing Harry Nunamaker, who served for 44 years.
1973: Mayo Engineering takes on the “responsibility and supervision for the Glass Blowing Facility.”
1976: After being housed in numerous locations, the Mayo Clinic Glass Shop moves to its current home—in the basement of the Medical Sciences Building.
1978 (est.): Liver perfusion apparatus.
1985: An issue of Mayovox reports that “Mayo has had a glassblower for 65 years, but only one or two other medical centers in the country employ a full-time professional.”
1989 (est.): Perfusion tissue bath.
1995: FX TV’s “Breakfast Time,’’ a morning talk show, comes to Rochester to visit Gordon Smith, who shows off his work on national TV.
1999: Steven M. Anderson takes over as Glassblower in Residence, replacing Gordon Smith, who served for 33 years.
2017: Anderson creates DNA double helix sculpture.
2018: The exhibition “Apparatus: The Art of Scientific Glass” at UrbanGlass in Brooklyn, New York, features work by Anderson.
2019: Borosilicate glass-working stock.