Book spotlights forgotten 'Women of Mayo Clinic'

Women played roles in all facets of Mayo Clinic’s development as physicians, nurses, librarians and janitors. Here, from left to right, Alice Magaw, a nurse anesthetist known as the the "Mother of Anesthesia" works with Dr. Will Mayo and Sister Joseph Dempsey, Saint Marys Hospital administrator and Mayo’s surgical assistant.

Many people are familiar with Mayo Clinic's genesis story.

The short version goes something like this: A tornadotore a path of destruction through the small city on Aug. 21, 1883, and from the wreckage arose the clinic. Mother Alfredof the Sisters of Saint Francis and Dr. William Worrall Mayocommand the heights of that early narrative.

But now, a new book written by Rochester author Virginia M. Wright-Petersonseeks to penetrate the mists that surround many of the all-but-forgotten figures who propelled the clinic forward in its early years. And she does so by primarily focusing on the women.

" Women of Mayo Clinic: The Founding Generation" introduces readers to women who not only bumped up but broke through the glass ceiling of the times. They include Dr. Harriet Preston, the first physician to work with the Mayo family but whose membership to the Minnesota Medical Society was rejected because she was a woman.

"Let the female remain in her sphere, and I will remain in mine … I will say to her, 'You no more can do the work designed for me than I can do the work designed for you," said one Illinois physician at the time.


Others figures include Maud Mellish Wilson, a clinic librarian and editor whose hawkish editor's eye improved the quality of physicians' papers and helped shape and spread the clinic's reputation; and Eleanora Fry, an artist whose detailed drawings demonstrated many of the then-state-of-the-art procedures that Mayo was pioneering.

That rich trove of history wasn't what Wright-Peterson was expecting when she started her research. One day, while working to put together a Jeopardy!-style game focused on women in Mayo's history, she stopped by the clinic's archives to do some research.

Expecting that history to be focused on a small handful of women, Wright-Peterson was surprised to discover a historical landscape populated by a vast numberof them. Her book focuses on about 40of those women, but she could have easily doubled that number, Wright Peterson said.

"I started reading some of the stories, and I couldn't believe it that as a local person and someone who had worked at Mayo for all of the years that I had that I didn't know more about the women," Wright-Peterson said.

The critical role played by women in Mayo's early history was facilitated by founder Dr. William Worrall Mayo and his sons, Drs. Will and Charlie Mayo. They clearly didn't share the view that men and women belonged to their respective spheres. Dr. William Worrall Mayo was among those advocating for Preston's inclusion in the state medical society.

"We marvel at that, and his sons adopted the same attitude," Wright-Peterson said. "We suspect that some of that came from his exposure to the Quakers and his early education where girls were educated right next to boys. None of them shied away from including strong intelligent women."

Many women simply preferred seeing female physicians for reasons that are both obvious and perhaps not so obvious. Many male doctors were often "less than adept" at pelvic examinations because they had been trained to stare at the ceilingwhile examining women.

Other discoveries included the fact that Susan B. Anthony, a social reformer and key figure in the women's suffrage movement, spoke in Rochester in 1877. But the gears of democracy move slowly. It wouldn't be until 40 years later from Anthony's Rochester address that women would win the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment.


The book, as one would expect of a history focused on Mayo's history, tells the stories of many of the early female nurses and physicians, but it doesn't confine itself to them. The book also sheds light on the first woman janitor, as well as the wives of the early doctors.

The rollout of Wright-Peterson's book, which is published by the Minnesota Historical Society, was timed to coincide with a series events scheduled for Women's History Monthin March.

An exhibit highlighting the life and times of a dozen Mayo women will run from March 1 to March 17 in Mayo Clinic's Hage Atrium, which is on the subway level of the Siebens Building.

The launch of the book will take place on March 2 at at Phillips Hall(on the street level of the Siebens building). The event will also feature a one-woman show by award-winning stage and television performer Megan Cole, who has created a script based on Wright-Peterson's bookand will perform as a half-dozen of the women.

"In a lot of ways, this is a writer's dream," Wright-Peterson said.

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