Dr. Erick Yngve Hakanson's philosophy of medicine was straightforward: "A good doctor takes care of the disease," he told an interviewer six years ago. "But a great doctor takes care of the patient with the disease."
During his 49-year career, Hakanson helped develop in-school clinics that focused on inner-city teenage mothers, providing urgently needed prenatal and reproductive health care that reduced teen pregnancies. The schools also offered child care so the mothers didn't have to drop out.
Hakanson, a longtime St. Paul obstetrician-gynecologist who taught at the University of Minnesota Medical School, died Sept. 18 at Willows of Ramsey Hill in St. Paul. He was 102.
Hakanson headed the Obstetrics and Gynecology Department at St. Paul-Ramsey Medical Center (now Regions Hospital), which launched a maternal-infant care program in St. Paul in 1968. It expanded into the St. Paul Public Schools in 1973, adding a focus on teenagers, a historically underserved population, said Sandy Naughton, a health educator who's been with the project since 1978. It became the nation's first school-based health care program in the secondary setting, and its success led to similar programs across the country.
The program, now called Health Start, is offered in 10 St. Paul schools. Former Health Start head Shawna Hedlund said similar programs exist in 30 schools in Minnesota.
Hakanson "identified teens as having the highest-risk pregnancies, and he figured out a way to get them wraparound care" — including doctors, nurses, social workers, health educators and nutritionists — "and brought the care to them with a goal of keeping them in school so they could get their high school diplomas," said Dr. Lisa Erickson, a retired OB-GYN who was a resident under Hakanson in the 1980s and conducted an oral history interview with him in 2017. "Instead of the patients coming to the doctors, we brought the doctors to the patients."
Hakanson took heat for the program. "Back then," said daughter Nina Hakanson of St. Paul, "talking to teens was controversial, and certainly providing that kind of [reproductive] care within the school clinic."
Hakanson was born in Sweden in 1920, three years before his parents immigrated to the United States and settled in South St. Paul. After graduating from South St. Paul High School and the U's medical school, he interned at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Seattle during World War II and served as director of the OB-GYN residency training program at Oakland Naval Hospital in California during the Korean War.
While in Sweden on a fellowship, he met Karin Maria Hellzen and married her in 1950. Their marriage lasted 71 years until her death in 2021.
An advocate for women's reproductive rights, Hakanson testified in support of Dr. Jane Hodgson when she was charged in 1970 in St. Paul for performing an abortion, which was illegal at the time, on a woman with measles. The Minnesota Supreme Court overturned her conviction following the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.
Besides his daughter Nina, Hakanson is survived by two sons, Sten of Stillwater and Karl of St. Paul; daughter Lisa of Minneapolis; seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. A celebration of life is planned for later this year.
John Malo, a retired OB-GYN who was a resident under Hakanson, said his mentor taught that "physicians have an obligation to care for and respect people, regardless of their income, occupation, or race." He said Hakanson got residents involved in clinics that cared for people from all walks of life.
"He was kind of a moral compass for his residents," Malo said. "The residents learned by example. ... He produced a lot of physicians who wanted to help in the community. I think that is his legacy."