Mayo Clinic began from community need


What is now the Mayo Clinic had its beginning in the founding of St. Mary’s Hospital by the Sisters of St. Francis of the congregation of Our Lady of Lourdes in Rochester, Minnesota.

Tragedy strikes

A tornado struck Rochester Aug. 21, 1883, and destroyed a large part of the town; since the town had no hospital at the time, temporary facilities were improvised to care for the injured.

Dr. William Worrall Mayo, who had served as a medical examiner for the Union Army during the Civil War, was appointed by the city council to take charge of this operation, and he obtained the valuable assistance of the Sisters in nursing the many injured.

Hospital needed

Much of the early success in administration as well as in surgery was due to the “guiding spirit and presiding genius” of Sister Mary Joseph and her colleagues. The Sisters had been involved in charitable and educational activities in the area, and the tornado disaster in 1883 suggested the need for a hospital in Rochester. Consequently, Mother Alfred convinced Dr. Mayo to take charge of a proposed hospital which the Sisters would build according to his specifications.

After much diligence, the Sisters raised the necessary $75,000 and the new St. Mary’s Hospital was opened Oct. 1, 1889. The original structure had 45 beds and a single operating room. It was staffed by four, and shortly thereafter by another five Sisters.

The elder Mayo, affectionately called “W-W,” semiretired in 1901 and his two sons — Dr. William James Mayo and Dr. Charles Mayo largely directed the affairs of the hospital with the able assistance of the sisters from then on.

Difficult beginnings

The early years of St. Mary’s Hospital were difficult ones. The physical plant was not without faults, and the staff was much too small. Two-day nursing shifts for the Sisters were not uncommon, and the doctors Mayo themselves assumed some of the nursing duties. Hospital equipment was limited to bare essentials because of the lack of funds. There were other problems as well.

Hospitals had traditionally been viewed as institutions for the poor, and there was thus some hesitancy among the economically independent to send their sick to them.

A more serious handicap was the religious affiliation of the institution. At that time considerable anti-Catholic sentiment was developing in the Midwest, and attitudes in Rochester reflected this trend. Even though St. Mary’s had no religious qualifications for patients, this suspicion of “Catholic” institutions plagued its operations until as late as 1895.

Pay as you can

From the beginning, the policy existed at the hospital that the patient would pay only according to his or her ability. This policy owed much to the charitable intentions of the Sisters and to the traditional role of the hospital in the 19th century.

It seemed to have encouraged the sick to come there, for the number of patients was soon more than the facilities were designed for, but from the beginning, the hospital was financially self-supporting.

The policy was abused and the Sisters finally had to rule that no one could be admitted to the hospital without first having been examined by one of the Mayo doctors. This decision in effect closed St. Mary’s to all but the Mayo’s patients.

Services grow

The future of the hospital was thus essentially placed in the hands of doctors “Will” and “Charlie” Mayo. The early reports of the hospital show that the first few years almost two-thirds of the patients were treated surgically.

While surgery remained prominent for the clinic’s existence, other medical facilities were expanded greatly after 1914. Men and women were hired with expertise in cardiology, renal diseases, radiology, urology and other allied fields. Laboratory and diagnostic facilities were also expanded to handle the increased work load.

Mayo Foundation

In 1919, the Mayo brothers dissolved their partnership and donated the Mayo Clinic name, assets, and the bulk of their life savings to consolidate the Mayo Foundation as a private, charitable, not-for-profit organization. Physicians were to be employees and receive a salary but otherwise not benefit personally from the proceeds of the practice.

The Mayo Clinic still operates in the same manner, and proceeds beyond expenses are disbursed for patient care, education and research. In addition to its work in medical practice, the Mayo Clinic has played a leading role in medical education.

In the early 20th century, it joined the Rockefeller Foundation and Johns Hopkins University in the movement for reform of medical education by establishing a three-year program of graduate medical education.


In 1915, the Mayo Foundation established a formal relationship between the clinic and the University of Minnesota in research and education. St. Mary’s Hospital treated 300 patients in its first year. Today, more than 6.5 million people have been treated at the Mayo Clinic. The organization has expanded over the years to Jacksonville, Florida and Scottsdale, Arizona. And, a network of clinics serve 62 communities in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Although the Mayo Clinic as an institution later grew beyond the lives of its creators, it is important to remember that it was built upon the practices and ideas of three individuals, “W-W,” Willie and Charlie Mayo.

That’s your history!


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Professor Emeritus Hugh Earnhart had a 32-year career in the history department at Youngstown State University, where he specialized in the Civil War and the South. Send suggestions, comments or questions to Hugh Earnhart in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460-0038; or via email to:


  1. Thanks for this, Hugh! Just goes to show that religious Americans CAN and DO offer great social benefits, and in this care healing of the mind, body, and spirit.


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