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The History of the Mayo Clinic

Updated on December 2, 2017

19th Century Medical Reality

Dr. William W. Mayo is pictured here with his medical supply wagon
Dr. William W. Mayo is pictured here with his medical supply wagon

The Strange Saga of a Frontier Doctor

William Worrell Mayo was born in Manchester, England in 1819. The family name, though exotic in appearance, is simply a derivation of Mathew and is as English as can be. William Mayo studied science in England, before leaving for the U.S. in 1846.

Once in America, W.W. Mayo moved around a bit until he received a degree in medicine from the University of Missouri in 1854. Shortly thereafter, he married and moved to southwestern Minnesota, which at time was a wild outpost on the Sioux frontier. Even though he had a degree in medicine, Dr. Mayo had to work at many jobs to support his family. During that time, the doctor also tried his hand at putting out a newspaper, operating a ferry boat, running a farm and working as a deckhand on a steamboat.

In 1862, Dr. Mayo was hired as an U.S. Army doctor during the Sioux Uprising and again during the last years of the Civil War. Even so, Dr. Mayo was never able to devote full time to his medical practice until he was in his seventies. Such was life on the frontier,even for a doctor.

Eventually, Dr. Mayo and his family settled in the growing city of Rochester, where he also served as alderman, mayor and state senator.

Unusual Lab

Most likely Dr. Mayo's lab was much more basic than the one pictured here
Most likely Dr. Mayo's lab was much more basic than the one pictured here

Dr. Mayo's Strange Death

Dr. Mayo died in 1911, following complications from a scientific experiment that went haywire. The good doctor was experimenting with the conversion of plant and animal wastes into alcohol, and in doing so, had crushed one arm, when the extractor malfunctioned. The injury was so bad that part of the arm was amputated, yet complications from the operation lead to Dr. Mayo's death. Not the best ending, for the namesake for one of the world's foremost hospitals, but the very least one can say, is that the Minnesota doctor went out of this world still trying to improve his understanding of science and medicine.

Funnel Cloud

A midwestern funnel cloud might look something like this
A midwestern funnel cloud might look something like this | Source

A Hollywood Tornado

The tornado in The Wizard of Oz was created in the studio using a large muslim sock
The tornado in The Wizard of Oz was created in the studio using a large muslim sock

A Tornado Outbreak

August 21, 1883 started out just like any other hot summer day on the southern Minnesota prairie. Meteorological information is sketchy for this actual date, but we do know from historical records that the summer day was hot, humid with afternoon temperatures near 90. Also, there was a strong low pressure system located northeast of Rochester with the center being situated near Marquette, MI. In other words conditions were just right for a tornado outbreak across the southern Minnesota prairies.

Mile Wide Tornado

This mile-wide tornado struck Wichita Falls, Texas in April 1979 killing 44 people and injuring 1800.
This mile-wide tornado struck Wichita Falls, Texas in April 1979 killing 44 people and injuring 1800.

The Outbreak

The first tornado of August 21, 1883 touched down at 3:30 pm about ten miles south of Rochester near Pleasant Grove. Estimated at F3 strength, the twister moved northeasterly through farm country, killing two people during the three miles that is was on the ground.

At 6:30 pm a F5 tornado touched down east of Rochester and stayed on the ground for 25 miles. Reportedly, this storm was a mile wide and roared like a train, as it passed through the northern parts of Rochester. Thirty-seven deaths are blamed on this monster of a storm.

The last storm touched down at 8:30 pm near the town of St, Charles, which is located about 20 miles east of Rochester. This F3 tornado killed one person.

Tornado Damage

Actual 1883 photo of Rochester tornado damage
Actual 1883 photo of Rochester tornado damage

A Long Night

The night of August 21st proved to be a long one for the residents of Rochester. Using torches to cut through the darkness, survivors of the great storm searched the debris for the injured and the dead. The deceased were taken to the local morgue, but the hundreds of injured were shuttled to several makeshift locations, including Dr. William Worrall Mayo's office, the Buck Hotel, city hall, and the convent of the Sisters of St. Francis.

For Dr.Mayo and the few other doctors in town, the task of visiting all the different locales was overwhelming. So, on the very next day, they transferred all the patients to Romel's Dance Hall for treatment. Eventually, most of the patients got better, though there are no statistical facts on how many died in the weeks that followed the catastrophe.


The Reality On the Ground

The reality in Rochester on August 22, 1883 was rather grim. During the past 24 hours, 37 people had died, while another 200 had been injured. The northern quarter of Rochester had taken a direct hit causing the destruction of at least 200 homes and then as the F5 tornado proceeded across the countryside in a northeasterly direction 40 farms were completely leveled.

To complicate matters, the state of Minnesota only had two hospitals with both being located in the St. Paul area, some 77 miles to the north.

The Aftermath

In the months that followed, it became quite clear to many, who lived in Rochester that the city very much needed a working hospital. Strangely enough, Dr. Mayo was initially opposed to the idea because he thought it would have been too expensive. If not for the fundraising expertise of Mother Alfred Moes of the Sisters of St. Francis, the Mayo Clinic probably would have never gotten off the ground.

Once the injured from the tornado had been healed, Sister Alfred Moes and the St. Francis went to work on creating a hospital in Rochester. In 1889, the St. Mary's Hospital opened with just 27 beds. At their services, they had Dr. Mayo and his two sons, who by this time had also earned medical degrees. Today, the hospital still stands and is still in operation, as it shares some services with the much larger Mayo Clinic.

The Mayo Clinic Today

Pictured here is the Gonda Building atrium. The downtown Rochester campus has over 30 buildings, most of which are connected by underground tunnels.  photo by Chad Johnson
Pictured here is the Gonda Building atrium. The downtown Rochester campus has over 30 buildings, most of which are connected by underground tunnels. photo by Chad Johnson

From Small Hospital to Large World-renown Clinic.

Dr. Mayo died in 1911, leaving behind the Mayo Clinic, which by now had taken on at least one doctor from outside the family. In 1919, the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research was established. This non-profit organization would eventually grow and become the Mayo Clinic.

Today, the organization has expanded across the country to employ 4500 physicians and another 50,000 health personnel. The Clinic is often rated number one in the U.S. The physical complex in Rochester currently has a staff of approximately 34,000. Several medical schools around the country also bear the Mayo name.And just think it all started with one F5 tornado.

A Day Above the Mayo Clinic

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