Building a Legacy

With love and charity, what is today known as Mercy Medical Center – Des Moines was founded in 1893 by the Sisters of Mercy, whose spirit continues to guide us in providing healing, health and hope to all we are privileged to serve.

The following timeline details many of Mercy’s most notable milestones over the course of the past 125 years.






Mercy’s story begins in Dublin, Ireland, when Mother Catherine McAuley established the Sisters of Mercy on Dec. 12, 1831 – an order devoted to providing compassionate care for poor and suffering humanity. Driven by the missionary spirit, the Sisters went on to form new convents throughout Ireland and the world.



To provide access to much-needed hospital services and loving care in Des Moines, Mother Mary Baptist Martin and Father Michael Flavin surveyed the residence of prominent Iowa politician Hoyt Sherman. Known today as Hoyt Sherman Place, the temporary location for Mercy Hospital was opened on Dec. 8, 1893, with two private rooms and a ward for five patients.



The first of many dedications was held on April 23, 1895, during the opening of the permanent Mercy Hospital. Located at Fourth and Ascension Streets, the facility was heralded as “a great institution of charity to stay with the city for all time.”

Catherine McAuley

The Venerable Mother Catherine McAuley, founder of Sisters of Mercy.

An early hospital room located in today’s Hoyt Sherman Place. Sister Mary Anthony Reilly (pictured) was the first professionally licensed nurse in Iowa from a religious order.


The education of women has always been a primary mission of the Sisters of Mercy. On April 17, 1899, the Mercy Des Moines School of Nursing formally opened, offering a two-year degree. Graduation exercises for seven students were held on June 17, 1901.



The Sisters of Mercy took ownership of the hospital in Centerville, Iowa, and under their direction, continued to grow.

Graduates of the Mercy Des Moines School of Nursing looked forward to earning up to $50 per week, but were expected to put in 10 hours or more a day to receive that wage.


With a weekly charge of $10 for care, Mercy opened a pediatric department that included a solarium featuring special helio-glass windows, allowing little ones to benefit from the sun’s ulra-violet rays. Mercy Children’s Hospital & Clinics continues to provide the latest specialized technologies to meet the needs of our young patients, including a 24/7 pediatric emergency department, pediatric intensive care unit, and central Iowa’s only pediatric cardiovascular surgery program. Take a virtual tour of the Mercy Children’s Hospital & Clinics.



Mercy was the first Iowa hospital to use a hydrotherapy tank in its physical therapy department to aid victims of polio and similar diseases.  

Spirits were kept as high as possible in Mercy’s pediatrics department by nursing staff and members of the Mercy Auxiliary. 


As part of the World War II effort, Mercy established a blood plasma bank in its lab. The hospital received a citation of merit for this work, with the award presented during a special KRNT radio broadcast sponsored by Bankers Trust Company.

The war also brought enormous medical progress. Doctors returned from the war with new procedures for treating serious injuries and burns, plus a greater knowledge of plastic surgery. Penicillin, the “wonder drug” was introduced, followed quickly by cortisone and important tranquilizers.

Members of the nursing class of 1944 pose in uniforms and habit, depicting the profession. Nearly 90 percent of Mercy’s 1943 nursing school graduates entered a military branch.


Mercy inaugurated two new departments devoted to short-term care: the outpatient department and the tonsil ward, which was opened from October to June each year. The trend toward tonsil removal occurred during this time.



Mercy’s School of Medical Technology came alive in 1954, with a four-year program that combined liberal arts and medical technology in affiliation with Drake University.


Mercy made news with the daring treatment of one of its youngest patients. For the first time on record, a lobectomy was performed in Des Moines on a four-day-old baby boy. The operation was successful and the baby fully recovered.

The tonsil ward made its debut in 1951 when tonsillectomies were as frequent as the common cold.


Mercy’s first male nursing student was Ronald F. Caulk, who successfully completed Mercy Hospital’s nursing program and graduated with the class of 1959. “I am fortunate that all the women in my class accepted me without any reservations. I have a special love for all of them,” said Caulk.


To recognize the hard work of its employees, Mercy hosted the first annual employee recognition dinner on Feb. 23, 1960. The tradition continues, with the Mercy Colleague Recognition Dinner still held each spring.


Mercy was the first health care agency in Iowa involved in chemotherapy and cancer research, beginning an experimental chemotherapy program in 1972. This legacy of improving patient care continues today at Mercy Cancer Center.


Mercy’s unique H-shaped towers were constructed from 1971 to 1974. The first application of the “Friesen concept” used in health care, the buildings feature a closet-like space outside each patient’s room that makes it very easy for caregivers to deliver and access supplies.

Candy stripers volunteered many hours through the Mercy Guild.  


Mercy made headlines on Nov. 29, 1979, when the first percutaneous transcending angioplasty (PTA) – later called percutaneous transcending coronary angioplasty (PTCA) – was performed in Iowa by Mercy physician, Dr. Liberato Iannone. This non-surgical procedure allowed a plastic catheter equipped with a balloon to be inserted into a vein, threaded to a coronary blockage, and inflated to restore blood flow to the area.


To meet the needs of the Des Moines community, Mercy Clinics was developed in 1983. It opened its first Mercy Medical Clinic at Valley West Mall in 1983. Today, Mercy Clinics is central Iowa’s largest multi-specialty clinic system, operating more than 50 family practice, specialty, urgent care and pediatric clinics.

Dr. Liberato Iannone (pictured) performed the first PTA in Iowa in 1979. The procedure was hailed for restoring the patient to health more quickly than traditional cardiac surgery.


The first Mercy emergency air transport took flight in November 1987. Today, Mercy One’s fleet of air ambulances are the fastest in Iowa. With a cruising speed of 180 mph, these helicopters provide rapid transport and expert care to the critically ill and injured across the state.

Also in 1987, the House of Mercy opened its doors in Des Moines, practicing the same caring and compassionate principals of serving God shared by Mother Catherine McAuley.

Today, this nurturing establishment continues to provide a home for women and children facing the most challenging circumstances in life, such as domestic violence, homelessness, substance abuse and teenage pregnancy. House of Mercy has grown to become Iowa’s largest provider of transitional housing for women undergoing treatment for substance abuse.

Mercy Air Life began in 1987. Sister Joseph (right) listened to flight nurse Laurie Dickinson, while she explained the details of radio communications between the hospital and the helicopter.


The year 1988 was a big one for Mercy. It was in that year Mercy was the first in Iowa to perform a single lung transplant. In January 1988, Mercy became the first Iowa hospital to open a hyperbaric oxygen unit, which allows a patient to breath pure oxygen at pressures greater than normal atmospheric pressure. This promotes new blood vessel formation, kills bacteria, helps remove toxins from certain wounds and allows the oxygen to penetrate deep into the tissues and assist recovery.

Ruan Neurological Center also opened in July 1988. Designed to emphasize care, treatment and support of multiple sclerosis patients and their families, the center also offered care to patients suffering from head injuries and other neurological problems. Today, Mercy Ruan Neurology Clinic uses the latest research and technologies to evaluate, diagnose and develop a treatment plan for many different neurological disorders – diseases of the brain, spine and nerves.



A combination pacemaker/defibrillator was used for the first time in Iowa history when Mercy surgeons installed it in a patient in 1990.


Mercy was the first in Des Moines to have a pediatric intensive care unit fully equipped to provide cardiac care for children. Today, accommodations include Iowa’s first Ronald McDonald Family Room, which enables parents to stay close to their child.

John Ruan (left) and Mercy President Sister Patricia Clare Sullivan (right) address the crowd during the dedication ceremony for the new Ruan Neurology Center at Mercy.


What is now known as the Mercy Pediatric Emergency Department opened in 2000, and today is recognized as an American College of Surgeons-verified Level II Pediatric Trauma Center. Staff and specialists are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to serve the special emergency needs of infants, children, adolescents and their families.

Also in 2000, The Iowa Heart Hospital at Mercy was created by merging the largest cardiology group in Iowa with the expertise of a multi-disciplinary heart care team.



Mercy purchased the assets of Metropolitan Medical Center (formerly Des Moines General), located at E. 12th and Lyon, and renamed it Mercy Capitol.

Mercy’s East Tower, located on its central campus, was part of a multi-year facility and services development program called “Mercy Momentum.” The comprehensive plans called for the renovation and modernization of existing facilities, as well as construction of new facilities to better distribute services throughout the Des Moines metro area.


Mercy opened a six-story tower on the east side of central campus, featuring new critical care units, the Mercy Variety Neonatal Intensive Care Unitbirthing centerRuan Neurology Clinic, and educational and conference facilities.



Mercy and Iowa Heart Center integrated, combining the region’s foremost cardiologists, cardiothoracic surgeons and vascular surgeons with Iowa’s leading cardiovascular hospital. Today, Iowa Heart Center is the state’s largest provider of cardiovascular care.



Mercy Medical Center – West Lakes opened in West Des Moines to provide much-needed services to the quickly-expanding western communities in central Iowa.



Skiff Medical Center in Newton, Iowa, and Mercy combined, forming more than 200 years of dedicated health care service.


(Left to right) Sister Martina Woulfe, Sister Karen Yarkosky and Sister Mary Ellen Devereux bread ground on the new Mercy – West Lakes campus in West Des Moines.


Iowa’s first obstetrics emergency department was opened at Mercy in November 2016. Staffed by hospitalists available 24/7 basis for emergency pregnancy care, the Mercy Women & Infants’ Center ensures patients are evaluated within 30 minutes of being admitted – helping provide mother and baby with a safe delivery.


The first center of its kind in Iowa, Mercy Comfort Women’s Center opened in 2017, to offer care for women with a special focus on the health care needs of women in their prime. In one convenient location, women have access to comprehensive breast care through Mercy Katzmann Breast Center, medical imaging and testing, internal medicine, mental health services and endocrinology.

Funding for Mercy Comfort Women’s Center came from the family of Frank Comfort, Des Moines leader and philanthropist.


A joint venture between Mercy Medical Center – Des Moines and Kindred Healthcare, Mercy Rehabilitation Hospital opened its doors on June 7, 2018. The first and only of its kind in Iowa, the freestanding rehab hospital provides care for patients recovering from stroke, traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, amputation and other conditions.

In July 2018, Mercy received approval from the State Health Facilities Council to move forward with a proposal to build a 100-bed freestanding behavioral health hospital in Clive. Plans for the new behavioral health hospital call for construction to begin in spring 2019.

Mercy Rehabilitation Hospital is a state-of-the-art, 50-bed inpatient acute rehabilitation hospital.

(515) 247-3121
1111 6th Avenue
Des Moines, Iowa 50314

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