William J. and Charles H. Mayo

The American physicians William J. Mayo (1861-1939) and Charles H. Mayo (1865-1939) were brothers who led the development of the Mayo Clinic into a world-renowned center of medical treatment and research. Outstanding surgeons in their own right, the Mayos encouraged an atmosphere of cooperation and information sharing both within their institution and with other medical practitioners throughout the world. Their facility has drawn top physicians to practice and research there and also serves as a training center in medical specialties.

William J. Mayo and Charles H. Mayo were the leading figures in the founding and development of the Mayo Clinic, a world-class medical treatment, research, and training facility in Rochester, Minnesota. Beginning as St. Mary's Hospital in 1889, an institution run under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Sisters of St. Francis of Rochester, the facility became known for the surgical expertise of the Mayo brothers and their staff. As the clinic grew in size, it drew leading medical practitioners in a number of specialty areas. The success of the Mayo Clinic is based not only on the high caliber of its physicians, but also on the ideals of cooperation, collaboration, and information sharing that the Mayo brothers promoted there. By 1915, the institution had also incorporated an educational branch, the Mayo Foundation for Education and Research, which was designed to train new generations of physicians in a variety of medical specialties.

Natives of Minnesota, the Mayos were two of the five children of the English-born doctor William Worall Mayo and his wife, Louise Abigail (Wright) Mayo. William James Mayo was born in Le Sueur, Minnesota, on June 29, 1861. His younger brother, Charles Horace Mayo, was born on July 19, 1865, in Rochester, Minnesota. Although their father was a very successful physician, the boys' childhood was not very different from that of other children in the area. They attended local schools and assisted with chores on the family farm in Rochester. In addition to their regular coursework, however, the Mayo brothers were also instructed in a wide range of scientific topics by their parents at home. Their mother taught them botany by identifying the plants and trees that they found while walking on the farm. She also encouraged their interest in astronomy by installing a telescope on the roof of their house. Their father would instruct them in chemistry, physics, anatomy, and other topics applying to medical science as the boys did chores around the home.

Social Values Shaped Career

William and Charles were also exposed to ideas in the arts and literature. They were sent to the Rochester Training School for lessons in Latin, art, and the classics. They also indulged in reading classic works of literature from the family library, including novels by the authors Charles Dickens and James Fenimore Cooper. These readings, as well as their parents' stories about their experiences during the Civil War and the 1862 Sioux Outbreak, helped the brothers to develop the social values that would distinguish their careers. Under the guidance of their parents, they gained a strong sense of humanitarianism, the benefits of cooperative work, and respect for individual achievement. Both of the young men set their sights on a medical career, no doubt due to their lifelong training in the subject. William completed his medical studies at the University of Michigan in 1883. Charles studied medicine at the Chicago Medical School, later known as Northwestern University Medical School, and graduated in 1888.

In 1883, a tornado struck Rochester, devastating a large part of the town and injuring many of its residents. The city had no hospital at that time, so temporary facilities to care for the victims were set up under the leadership of William Worall Mayo. He was assisted in his work by the Catholic nuns of the Sisters of St. Francis order in Rochester. The experience inspired the Sisters to create a permanent hospital, and they hired William Worall Mayo to direct the project. St. Mary's Hospital opened on October 1, 1889, with a small staff consisting of the elder Dr. Mayo and his two sons and a handful of the Sisters. The Mayos' father, then in his seventies, retired shortly after the founding of the hospital, leaving the operation in the hands of the young doctors William and Charles in 1892.

Specialized in Surgical Techniques

The hospital had been created with the mission of providing humane care to anyone who was in need, and patients were charged based on their ability to pay. This system brought in a huge number of poor patients, and for the first few years, the limited staff struggled to meet the overwhelming demand. To eliminate the huge numbers of hopeless patients being sent to them from other doctors, a rule was instituted that only patients who had been seen by one of the Mayo doctors could be admitted. This allowed the hospital to take on the atmosphere of a more limited clinic where the Mayos specialized in surgical techniques. Both of the brothers became talented and respected surgeons with distinctive areas of expertise. William specialized in surgery of the abdomen, pelvis, and kidneys, while Charles had an even wider range of surgical ability—he pioneered important procedures in a variety of areas, including thyroid, neurologic, cataract, and orthopedic surgery. As the reputation of the Mayo Clinic grew, more paying patients were drawn to the institution and the brothers were able to improve and expand their facilities.

The Mayo Clinic became known as a unique medical facility not only for the talented physicians that came to work there, but also because of its liberal social and professional ideals. Its mission included not only treating patients on the premises, but providing information that could be of use to doctors and patients everywhere. It featured a comprehensive library of clinical records that were available to any doctor that needed them and a tradition of professional cooperation balanced with recognition of individual contributions. Throughout the years, the clinic developed specialized divisions in surgery as well as other areas, including anesthesia, physiotherapy, social services, dietetics, and nursing education. It also included excellent laboratory and diagnostic facilities and was the site of leading efforts in medical research. In 1915, the clinic's role in educating medical professionals was formalized with the creation of the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, a joint venture with the University of Minnesota.

Recognized for Medical Talents

William and Charles Mayo also earned individual recognition for their medical talents. Charles was named president of the American Medical Association in 1906 and beginning in 1915 he served as a professor of surgery for the University of Minnesota. William was named to the University's Board of Regents in 1907, a position he held for the rest of his life. During World War I, the brothers divided the duty of serving as chief consultant in surgery for the United States Army; for their service they were both awarded the rank of colonel. While William retired from surgery in 1928, and Charles followed in 1930, they both remained active on the board of the Mayo Clinic until their deaths. By 1930, they had seen the clinic grow from a 45-bed hospital with one operating room to a multi-building complex with more than 1,000 beds that treated tens of thousands of patients a year.

After their retirements, the brothers purchased neighboring houses in Tucson, Arizona, where they spent much of their time in the winters. Upon a visit to the Mayo Clinic in the spring of 1939, however, William was diagnosed with stomach cancer and underwent surgery. Charles traveled to Rochester to be with his brother during his recuperation, and when it appeared that William was recovering rapidly, he took a short trip to see his tailor in Chicago. While there, he developed pneumonia and died on May 26, 1939. William's surgery proved to be unsuccessful in removing the cancer, and he retired to his home in Rochester, where he died only two months later on July 28, 1939. They left behind a thriving institution, which they had incorporated in 1919 under the Mayo Properties Association in order to ensure the ongoing success of the clinic after their departure. The Mayo Clinic, the first institution of its kind in the United States, remains a respected facility that balances the needs of patients for humane and effective treatment with the needs of doctors to share professional experience and information in research and education.

Further Reading on William J. and Charles H. Mayo

For more information, see Clapesattle, Helen B., The Doctors Mayo, University of Minnesota Press, 1941; Mayo, Charles H., "Early Days of the Mayo Clinic," Proceedings of the Mayo Clinic, October, 1932, pp. 584-87; Mayo, Charles H., Mayo: The Story of My Family and My Career, Doubleday, 1968; and Sketch of the History of the Mayo Clinic and the Mayo Foundation, W. B. Saunders, 1926.

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