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Rochester's most popular book tells the story of 'The Doctors Mayo'

Author said it was "never censored or whitewashed."

Then and Now - Thomas Tom Weber col sig
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Exact figures aren’t available, but there can be little doubt that the all-time bestselling book in Rochester is “The Doctors Mayo” by Helen Clapesattle.

The Doctors Mayo.jpg
"The Doctors Mayo" by Helen Clapesattle. (Contributed image)

The book, first published in 1941, has been popular ever since then with visitors and newcomers, and with Mayo Clinic patients and staff. It has been published in hardcover, in a trade-size paperback, and in a pocket-size paperback. Some local homes likely have two or three copies that have been purchased over the years.

The secret to its success?

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“The book was meant to be for laymen” who know nothing about the science of medicine, Clapesattle said.

The author herself knew nothing about medicine when, as a young editorial assistant at the University Press in Minneapolis, she was selected to write the story of the Mayo family and their world-famous medical practice.

Charlie and Will Mayo, who had been reluctant to write about themselves, were persuaded to make Clapesattle’s book an authorized project, giving her access to papers, records and family members.

Indeed, Clapesattle later said, “My book was never censored or whitewashed by anyone in Rochester.”

To work on the book, Clapesattle moved to Rochester for a time, and eventually spent two years researching and writing the Mayo story. She was able to interview Dr. Will shortly before his death in 1939 — on his final day in his Clinic office. Dr. Charlie had died two months earlier.

The book doesn't entirely avoid the science part of medicine, but Clapesattle, being a historian, focused more on the human side of Mayo Clinic. Her interest was primarily in the people behind the famous institution’s name.

“The Doctors Mayo” was published the week of the Pearl Harbor attack, with a cover price of $3.75. A reception for Clapesattle was held on Dec. 10, 1941, at the Coffman Memorial Union on the University of Minnesota campus. The book was serialized in the Atlantic Monthly magazine.

Clapesattle’s book could have easily been lost in the avalanche of war information. But it sold well enough to remain in print, not only during the war years, but for decades afterward. It was eventually translated into nearly two dozen languages.

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Along with her Mayo studies, Clapesattle, who was born in 1908 in Fort Wayne, Ind., became an expert on the historical development of Rochester and Olmsted County. In 1943, she gave a talk at the Rochester Rotary Club titled “The Early History of Olmsted County.”

She also became, post-publication of “The Doctors Mayo,” the chief editor of University Press. She later wrote another medicine-related book, “Dr. Webb of Colorado Springs,” about a physician who specialized in the treatment of tuberculosis.

Clapsattle died in 1993. She and her husband, Roger Skugg, had lived since 1967 in New Mexico, where Clapesattle engaged in her hobbies of fishing, cooking, gardening, photography and music.

Her name lives on, though, as the author of Rochester’s most popular book.

Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.

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