Stanley R. Nelson was a health care industry pioneer, engineering the 1970 combination of Northwestern and Abbott hospitals in Minneapolis, foreshadowing a wave of later health care mergers.

The lifelong health care administrator made an even bigger impact in Michigan, transforming a struggling Detroit hospital into the sort of large integrated health system that's common today.

Nelson, a resident of Edina and Scottsdale, Ariz., died Aug. 3 of complications from cancer. He was 85.

In the U.S. hospital business, Nelson was a widely known elder statesman. "He was very much a visionary, worried less about today than what would be the needs of the future," said Gordon Sprenger, a longtime friend and erstwhile colleague who retired as president of Allina Health System in 2003.

Mark Nelson said his father's interest in health care stemmed from his family's Lutheran faith and its care-giving tenets. He believed that "anyone involved in health care, the first thing on their list of values had to be helping others," Mark Nelson said.

Stanley Nelson wasn't a science-oriented guy, so his contribution wouldn't be doctoring. Instead, the Wisconsin-born Nelson earned an undergraduate economics degree and a master's in hospital administration from the University of Minnesota.

In 1954, the 28-year-old Nelson became administrator of a hospital in Fort Wayne, Ind. He moved on in 1961 to run Northwestern. By the late 1960s, a move was afoot to combine Northwestern, in south-central Minneapolis, with nearby Abbott.

Nelson "put the infrastructure in place for Abbott and Northwestern to merge into a major medical center," said Sprenger, who was hired by Nelson in 1967. It was "the beginning of what ultimately became Allina." Allina Health, a collection of 11 hospitals and more than 90 clinics, is one of Minnesota's biggest health care providers.

A year after the Abbott-Northwestern merger was consummated, Nelson became head of Detroit's financially troubled Henry Ford Hospital. He turned it around and created the Henry Ford Health System, one of the nation's first vertically integrated health companies -- hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and more -- a model that predominates today.

During his tenure at Henry Ford, Nelson also served in the early 1980s as chairman of the American Hospital Association. And he was founding president from 1977 to 1981 of Voluntary Hospitals of America, a purchasing organization.

Nelson retired from Henry Ford in 1988 and moved back to Minnesota. He then founded the nonprofit Scottsdale Institute, which helps health care executives share best practices in information technology.

Through his involvement with the Scottsdale Institute, Nelson remained in contact with current health care CEOs until fairly recently, Sprenger said.

Nelson is survived by his wife of 63 years, Virginia; a son, Mark; a daughter, Janet Rice; two brothers, Newell and John; five grandchildren, two step-grandchildren and one great-grandchild. A daughter, Barbara, preceded him in death. Services have been held.

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003