Nov. 17, 2021

The Founding of The Mayo Clinic, A Symbol of Triumph Over Tragedy

Ep: 004 In 1883 a devastating tornado hit Rochester, Minnesota  united a Franciscan school administrator and an agnostic doctor. The hard work of the sisters who worked as teachers at the school gave William Worrall Mayo no choice but to take over a small 12 bedroom hospital they built. This is their story.

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Video: A Leap of Faith - The Founding of St. Mary's Hospital

Video: My Brother and I: The Founding of Mayo Clinic

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This is History Briefs, where you’ll hear bits of history you may know little or nothing about. All in 20 minutes or less. I’m Brad Shreve…

You've heard of the Mayo Clinic, right? It's supposed to be a pretty good hospital. If you're truly familiar with Mayo, you know it's a disservice to call it only pretty good. Mayo Clinic is top-ranked for quality more often than any other health care organization. This includes Medicare and Medicaid Top Quality Ratings, A Ratings from Leapfrog, and organization that measures hospital safety, and then there are accolades such as being rated the World's Best Hospital by Newsweek Magazine and #1 in the nation by U.S. News and World Reports. 

Rochester, Minnesota is where their primary hospital is located. With a population of 125,000 people, over half of the citizens of Rochester work for the clinic. 

How did it begin and what happened that took a private practice which advertised in 1864 as being "Over the Union Drug Store on Third Street" to become one of the most respected hospitals in the world?  It started with a Roman Catholic nun and an agnostic doctor joining forces after a devestating act of nature. 

At the age of 27 William Worrall Mayo emigrated from England to the United States. 

After arriving in the U.S. he worked as a chemist at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. This was an era when hospitals were not a place to get well, but rather a place for the homeless, the poor, and the untreatable to go to die. 

William Mayo didn't stay long in that unpleasant environment. He traveled west which was not easy at that time. Like many in that era, he had a pioneering spirit and left Bellevue just in time. Soon after typhoid struck the hospital and 13 employees died. 

There were no trains yet, so William's travels west were not easy. Via rivers, canals and across the great lakes he reached what was known as The Northwest Frontier and set up shop in Lafayette, Indiana where he worked as a tailor, a trade he learned in England. His wanderlust kept him there only a short time and he decided to become a doctor. In 1850, he met his future wife, Louise Abigail Wright. 

In 1851, a year after William Worrall Mayo graduated with a medical degree, Maria Catherine Moes, traveled with one of her 9 siblings, Catherine, and got off the boat from Luxemburg in 1851. They were inspired after hearing a Bishop preach for the need of teachers in the United States, especially among the native Americans. 

Both William and Maria's move to America, are symbols of the determination people had to come to a new home across the Atlantic. 

Each of them rode in steerage, which a typical voyage consisted of 200 people crammed below decks, in bunks, with poor sanitation where disease spread easily. 

They made their own food which was spoiled at times. Humble beginnings for two people whose lives would become significant in saving numerous others. 

Once in America, Maria and her sister Catherine made their way to Milwaukee where they learned English and joined the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Before they made their final vows, the younger sister Barbara was dismissed for "Lack of Religious Spirit." Maria, who would later work with William Worrall Mayo, left with her. 

There's no record why, but in 1863, Sister Alfred (formerly Maria) and Sister Barbara (who was Catherine) became Franciscans and joined an order in Joliet Illinois. 

Mother Alfred Moes' life became busy, caring for orphans and teaching, helped victims of the Chicago fire, and eventually took on an administrative role where she sent sisters to 36 locations throughout the United States. After nearly 20 years she planned an extensive academy in Joliet, which her Bishop disapproved of and had her removed from her position. A year later she was sent to open Our Lady of Lourdes Academy. In 1877 the school opened with Sister Alfred Moes as administrator and 24 other Franciscan Sisters as teachers. The school was built in Rochester, Minnesota. 

Much of Sister Alfred's story took place during the civil war. During that time William Worrall Mayo took a different, yet also winding, path before reaching Rochester. He earned his medical degree in Missouri and continued to work there until he contracted malaria and decided to leave the state “Hell is a place where people have malaria,” He said, and then packed up and moved to the Minnesota Territory with his young wife, Louise and their daughter. 

When the family reached Minnesota, they lived in Minneapolis where William struggled to find patients while Louise kept the family finances stable with a successful millinery shop making dresses and designing creative hats. Eventually they moved to a farm in the small town of Le Seuer. Over the course of 9 years he changed jobs and moved is family many times while struggling to find patients. He worked as a census taker, riverboat captain, a surveyor, and a newspaper editor.

In 1863, for the first time in history, the United States instituted the draft.  All men between 20 - 45 were required to be registered. 

As an examining physician, Dr. Mayo was assigned to the draft board headquartered in Rochester.  He was pleased with the town and his family joined him a year later. He soon opened his own medical practice. 6 years later, restless, as always, he left Rochester to learn surgical techniques in Pennsylvania and New York. He returned and in 1864 and advertised "all calls answered days and nights” and became one of Rochester's most well respected doctors. 

 In August 1883 the population of Rochester pushed to over 5000 citizens. William Worrall Mayo's oldest son, William James joined his father's practice, and his son Charles was home from medical school. The school Sister Alfred had grown and purchased a second building. On August 21st disaster struck that brought them all together. On that day the skies darkened, winds began to roar, and three tornadoes hit. One was one mile wide. 

Most of Rochester was devastated, dozens were killed dozens, and more than 200 were injured.

Even the brothers, William James, and Charles, lucked out that day. Mayo Clinic Historical Director, Matthew Dacy, shares the story. 

They were almost killed in the tornado. They were in a, like a buggy racing back to town as a, as a tornado, struck a building, collapsed almost in front of them and smashed there. The, uh, the traces of their horses, horses ran free. They escaped with their lives. And so that's how close, uh, things can, things came

With the closest hospital nearly 80 miles away, Dr. William Worell Mayo, was asked to take charge of the wounded survivors. So, they laid the victims out in a dance hall, a library, uh, wherever they could set up a clearing station in a crisis situation. His son, William James was just out of medical school. The younger son, Charles, still a student in preparatory school getting ready to go to medical school, assisted him 

And the aftermath they were, uh, the night fell, the, the wind, the rain, all the terrible things. You can imagine the aftermath of a storm and people were suffering and, uh, family separated a great distress 

 Realizing he needed help, Dr. Mayo went down the street to the academy of our lady of Lord founded by Mother Alfred Mose.

He asked mother Alfred to assist them. Of course she said yes. And she allowed the, her school, which was enclosed for the summer to be a, another casualty clearing station. 

Mother Alfred Moes and the sisters of St. Francis joined the chaos. These were teachers who in a moment’s notice were nursing the wounded. And they worked hard, but that's not where the doctor the school administer with the Sisters of St. Frances ended.  

fast forward, a couple of weeks, a short time later, mother Alfred comes to Dr. Mayo's office with. She says, we, the Franciscan sisters we'll build a hospital for this city. If you and your sons will take charge of the medical care, they talked about it. Uh, he, he, he resisted hospitals were expensive.

This was risky. A small town. Uh, many people thought hospitals were where you went to die not to get. She persisted. She was a force of nature unto herself. She said with our faith hope and energy, it will succeed.

Mother Alfred had approached W.W. Mayo about opening a clinic but he had objected as he believed the town was too small for a hospital of the size and cost proposed to be sustainable. 

Mother Alfred assured Dr. Worall Mayo she and the sisters would raise the money to build a hospital. They made an agreement. If she was to build a hospital, he and his sons would take charge of medical care. 

What was so powerful, they had nothing of a legal document. They li they shook hands. This was a word of honor between both of them. They shook hands. Powerful example of trust has propelled us forward and just freeze frame for a moment how powerful this moment was because it was, it was transformative

Mother Alfred and the school took no time getting to work. 

And so this, these dedicated sisters, they scrimped and say they live frugal lives already. They just ratcheted. They would talk about, you know, how they made one soup, bone serve, many people they took in, um, you know, laundry. They did find needlework and solar. They gave music, lessons, nickels, and dimes and quarters. They saved her base $40,000 huge amount at that time. 

In October of 1889, in the little town of Rochester, Minnesota, with a population of only 5,300, St. Mary's Hospital opened it's doors. The hospital had 12 beds, Dr. William Worrall Mayo became the consulting physican, and his son's, William James Mayo, and Charles Horace Mayo were the surgical team. 

We must also give Dr. Mayo's wife, Louise credit. She handled the finances for the family. 

The Mayo family and the sister’s determination to work together, created the hospital, but the transition wasn't always smooth.

 there was one young woman, Julia Dempsey, her family had fled the Irish potato famine.

And so then Rochester, she had taken religious vows. She was now a sister. And now told you will work in the hospital. And this was of course a shock to her. She was present in an examination when, of course, for medical reasons, the male patient had to be unclothed during his examination.

This young farm girl was horrified. She, she turned the corner of the room, shaking and sobbing with how could she possibly deal with this with this situation,

but the strength of the Franciscan system. Continues to inspire it. She found it in herself to say, yes, I will step up. I will do this. She then, uh, became a nursing sister in the hospital within a few short years.

She was the superintendent of the hospital and Dr. William James first surgical assistant, he said his best assistant 

The career of that young girl who sobbed in the corner didn't end there.

with her delicate hands. She presented. Uh, nodule on a patient's abdomen has signified cancer. So the name of sister Joseph's nodule is now part of the medical literature, all of this from a young girl who was horrified by her first experience, but she embraced that change and she ended up being the CEO of the largest private hospital in America 

Three years after opening, William Worrall Mayo retired, and Augustus Stinchfield took over the operation. Additional partners were added through his encouragement. 

Mother Alfred Moes lived to see her hospital succeed. She died in 1899 in St Paul Minnesota at the age of 71.

As for the two Mayo brothers, the expansion of the hospital allowed them to develop their surgical skills. 

Will was the elder I, for years, he was quite the executive crisp, meticulous, always turned out after Charlie was a hail fellow. Well match the backslapper, the jokester. Whenever they were announcing a decision or an advance of medicine, they spoke in terms of my brother and I at Mayo clinic gets never, I would never meet.

It's always, we it's always us. The Mayo brothers set that model

They had, uh, developed a plan as to brothers where one would travel and the other would stay in the clinic and they would flip. And so over the course of their careers, they made dozens and dozens of trips throughout the us and abroad. They traveled by railroad I ocean liner to get to these far off places to learn. The latest techniques of those places and to share, but they knew all for the better of the, uh, of the cause.

In 1910, Dr. William Worrall Mayo died at the age of 90, due to complications from his injury. Louise Mayo died 5 years later. Unfortunately, the elder Mayo did not live to see the hospital built in 1919 that bears his name. The Mayo brothers carried on.  

So Mayo is this balance of a deeply rooted. Value based organization, but highly entrepreneurial, highly innovative, never stay satisfied, never, never, uh, stopped searching. And so that's the yin and yang of Mayo clinic. And the brothers established this because of course they found it, they owned it in 1919.

They had their wives signed a deed that don't. The land, the buildings and their life savings to turn their private clinic into a not-for-profit organization. We are a salaried staff. People are not paid more or less if they see more patients or fewer patients, if they order this test or that test, this procedure for that procedure is what's best for the patient.

Over 125 years St. Mary’s Hospital grew so large they had 5 buildings. In 2014, the Mayo Clinic, St. Mary’s Hospital, and Rochester Methodist Hospital consolidated under one name.

Starting as12-bed hospital in 1889, the Mayo Clinic today has over 1,200 beds and 70 operating rooms. The spirit of Dr. Worrall Mayo and Mother Alfred Moes carries on.  


Thank you Matthew Dacy, the Mayo Clinic Historical Director

In the show notes you’ll find links to the hospital’s history pages. 

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