Charles Horace Mayo was an American medical practitioner who co-founded the Mayo Clinic in collaboration with his brother and others. Adept in all surgical fields, he had especial expertise in neurosurgery and cataract operations. In addition, he had invented many modern methods of goiter and orthopedic surgeries. However, he is best known as one of the founders of the Mayo Clinic—a world-class medical treatment, research, and training facility in Rochester, Minnesota. From their childhood, Charles and his elder brother William accompanied their doctor father on his professional visits and watched him making diagnoses, prescribing treatment and later assisted in surgeries. Thus it was almost predestined that the brothers would study medicine and once they passed out from medical college, they joined their father in his private practice. Later as their father retired, they were joined by other doctors and together they opened the Mayo Clinic. The forty-five bedded surgical clinic they opened in 1903 turned into a multi-building integrated medical facility with a few decades under their stewardship.
Childhood & Early Life
Charles Horace Mayo was born on July 19, 1865 in Rochester, Minnesota. His father, William Worrall Mayo, was a British-American doctor and chemist. Descendant of a famous English chemist, John Mayow, he had emigrated to the U.S.A in 1846 and subsequently earned his medical degree from Indiana Medical College.
His mother, Louise Abigail Wright, was an extraordinary lady, keen on providing the children with good education. The couple had five children and Charles was younger of their two sons. His elder brother, William James Mayo, was four years his senior. They also had three sisters; the eldest among them was Gertrude.
Although the brothers were sent to the local school, their education was not confined to the school curriculum alone. They attended the Rochester Training School to study Latin, classics and art. Their parents also encouraged them to read the works of established writers from the family library.
In addition, they studied physics, chemistry and anatomy with their father. He also instructed them in various other subjects related to medicine while they were busy doing chores around the house.
Their mother instructed them in botany, helping them to identify plants while walking around the family farm. To encourage their interest in astronomy, she also had a telescope installed on the roof top.
They were also taught about the evils of prejudice and war. As a result they developed social values early in their life. Another unusual aspect of their upbringing was that they accompanied their father whenever he went on his professional calls.
Initially, they observed their father diagnosing the diseases and prescribing treatment. If there was an operation to be done, they were at first given very menial tasks; they later graduated to more serious tasks like administering the anesthesia or tying up blood vessels.
On August 21, 1883, when Charles Mayo was in final year of school, Rochester was devastated by a terrible tornado and many people were killed and injured. During that crisis, Charles worked extensively with his father and brother, then a qualified doctor, tending to the sick.
Later, as Charles Mayo passed out from school, he followed in his father’s footsteps and entered Chicago Medical College (later a part of Northwestern University), graduating from there in 1888. Thereafter he returned to Rochester to work with his father, who was by then known as ‘Old Doctor Mayo.
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Initially, Charles Mayo worked as an assistant to his father, helping him in his private practice. At that time, the town did not have any hospital. However, after the tornado, when patients had to be treated in a dance hall, the Sisters of Saint Francis of Rochester decided to build one.
Led by Mother Mary Alfred Moes, the sisters approached old Dr. William Worrall Mayo and encouraged by him, they collected enough money to build a hospital. Subsequently, on September 30, 1889, Saint Mary's Hospital—the precursor to the Mayo Clinic—opened its doors in Rochester.
Charles, along with William, now joined his father, then 70 years old, in serving the hospital. While Senior Mayo served as the consulting physician, the younger Mayos began seeing patients. Subsequently, they started doing operations while the Sisters of Saint Francis acted as nurses.
It is believed that the first surgery at Saint Mary’s was performed by Charles Mayo and the first nurse anesthetist at the hospital was Edith Graham, who later married Charles.
Soon Charles Mayo became well-known as a surgeon. He had the ability to work in all surgical fields and patients from far and wide began to come to Rochester to be treated by him.
Soon, it became impossible to manage the rush of patients at the hospital. Eye witness Dr. Wilfred T. Grenfell had once said, “The crowd in the waiting room is the nearest thing to a crowd after tickets to a football match that I have ever seen in any similar function.
The Sisters were finally forced to declare that unless a patient is recommended by the Mayo brothers, he would not be admitted to the hospital. As a result, more and more patients began to visit Mayo’s private practice.
In 1892, Senior Dr. Mayo retired from active service leaving his sons to take care of both the hospital and his private practice. However, before he did that, he asked Dr. Augustus W. Stinchfield, one of the best doctors he knew, to join his sons in the growing practice, which he willingly did.
As the practice continued to grow, Dr. Christopher Graham, Dr. E. Star Judd, Dr. Henry Stanley Plummer, Dr. Melvin Millet, and Dr. Donald Balfour joined the group. Initially, they shared the profits of the private group practice, while other staffs were hired on salary.
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In 1903, they together opened the ‘Mayo Clinic.’ Initially it was just a surgical clinic. With Charles Mayo pioneering important methods in thyroid, neurologic, cataract, and orthopedic surgery, its reputation began to grow fast. Very soon, they started expanding its facilities.
Concurrently, Charles Mayo continued performing surgery at St. Mary’s Hospital, from where he resigned in 1905. Thereafter, he concentrated fully on the Mayo Clinic, remaining in charge of its ophthalmic patients until 1908.
Then in 1911, his father, the Senior Mayo, passed away. By 1914, the Mayo Clinic had begun to outgrow the available space, and a new building that gave full expression to the integrated group medical practice was built.
In 1915, the Mayo brothers went one step further and gave the University of Minnesota $15 million to establish Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research in connection with Mayo Clinic at Rochester. Subsequently, Charles Mayo was appointed the Professor of Surgery at the University of Minnesota.
During World War I
When the World War I broke out, Charles Mayo was appointed as the Colonel in the U.S. Army Medical Corps. He served as the associate chief adviser for surgical care of U.S. Army soldiers, alternating with William, who was appointed as the chief adviser for U.S. Army surgical services in the office of the U.S. Army Surgeon General.
In 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson organized the Committee of American Physicians for Medical Preparedness with William as its chairman, Charles was inducted as one of its members.
The war years were a hectic time for both the Mayo brothers. At Mayo Clinic, apart from usual business, there were draftees to be examined and new recruits to the medical corp to be trained. Therefore, it became imperative that one of them be present at Mayo Clinic all the time.
Therefore, all through the war years, the two brothers continued to alternate between Rochester and Washington, making sure that one of them was always present at Rochester. The schedule was broken only once in 1918 when William was afflicted with severe jaundice and was off duty for two months.
Charles Mayo’s service to the nation during the war years did not go unrewarded. After the war, he was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General in the U.S. Army Reserve.
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In 1919, the Mayo Brothers turned Mayo Clinic into a non-profit organization and established Mayo Properties Association. Until now, the partners received a share of the profit. From then on, all other partners except Charles and William Mayo began to draw salary.
Charles Mayo now continued to serve the organization, ultimately retiring in 1930. However, he remained active on the Board of Mayo Clinic until his death a few years later.
The biggest achievement of Charles Horace Mayo was the establishment of the world-famous Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, which he co-founded along with his brother and other prominent doctors. Now a nonprofit medical practice and medical research group, the clinic is renowned for revolutionizing the way health care is provided in the US.
Awards & Achievements
In 1903, Charles Mayo became a member of American Surgical Association.
In 1905, he was elected as the President of the Minnesota State Medical Society.
In 1916, he was elected the President of the American Medical Association.
At the end of the First World War, Charles Mayo was honored with the U.S. Distinguished Service Medal for his service to the country during the war years.
Personal Life & Legacy
Charles Horace Mayo was married to Edith (Graham) Mayo. She was the nurse anesthetist, who had assisted him in his first surgery at St. Mary’s Hospital. They had two sons; Charles William Mayo and Joseph Graham Mayo, both of whom were attached to the Mayo Clinic.
After retirement, Charles Horace Mayo and his brother William bought neighboring properties in Tucson, Arizona, where they spent most of the winters. However, they often traveled to Rochester as they were still Members of the Board of Mayo Clinic.
In 1939, while on a visit to Rochester, William was diagnosed with cancer. Hearing this, Charles went to Rochester to see him and from there he traveled to Chicago, where he had an appointment with his tailor. While in Chicago, he developed pneumonia and died there on May 26, 1939.
On his death, Charles Mayo had left a thriving institution, which started with forty-five beds and one operating room. By the time he retired in 1930, the Mayo Clinic had grown into a hospital complex with a number of buildings and more than 1,000 beds. Annually they treated tens of thousands of patients.
On September 11, 1964, the United States Postal Service released a stamp depicting both Charles Horace Mayo and his brother William James Mayo.
Charles Mayo was famous for his quotable remarks. He had once said, “One of the chief defects in our plan of education in this country is that we give too much attention to developing the memory and too little to developing the mind; we lay too much stress on acquiring knowledge and too little on the wise application of knowledge.
Another time he is believed to have said, “The definition of a specialist as one who knows 'more and more about less and less' is good and true.
In 1986, St. Mary’s Hospital and also the Rochester Methodist Hospital merged with Mayo Clinic. Today, it has a network of clinics, hospitals, and health-care facilities in Florida, Arizona, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.