For more than four years, author Virginia Wright-Peterson rifled through records of Mayo Clinic's founding members to shed new light on the lives of some lesser-known but hugely important women.
On Tuesday, Wright-Peterson was witness to "a writer's dream," she said, as her years of work came to life in a new exhibit at Mayo Clinic, based on her book, "Women of Mayo Clinic — The Founding Generation." The exhibit is on display daily through March 17 in Hage Atrium, Siebens Building subway level.
On Wednesday evening, the author's work will be animated in a dramatic production. Megan Cole, an award-winning stage and television actor, will perform a one-woman show based on the characters in Wright-Peterson's book at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in Phillips Hall on the first floor of the Siebens Building.
The exhibit and performance are free and open to the public through a collaboration of Mayo Clinic partners, in honor of Women's History Month.
Wright-Peterson's research on Mayo's founding generation of women started when she was a Mayo employee in Rochester, to form a trivia game for other staff members. She and others of course knew of pioneers like Mother Mary Alfred Moes and Edith Graham Mayo, but as Wright-Peterson dug deeper, she found a host of characters that were unknown or underappreciated in Mayo's history.
The legacies of about 40 women unfold in Wright-Peterson's new book, including Sister Mary Joseph Dempsey, who was William J. Mayo's first surgical assistant and who became administrator of Mayo Clinic Hospital-Rochester, St. Marys Campus. She would hold that position for four decades and grow the hospital to more than 600 beds to become the largest privately held hospital in the country.
"There's a Joseph building out at St. Marys and a lot of us just walk through that all the time, and I really had no idea how instrumental she really was in building that hospital, which is a cornerstone of the Mayo practice," Wright-Peterson said.
Wright-Peterson said she hopes the exhibit will inspire people to look more for women's stories — at Mayo Clinic and in their personal lives.
Cole, who based her one-woman play on Wright-Peterson's book, has herself had a history with the women of Mayo's past. Cole has played Mother Mary Alfred Moes and Maud Mellish Wilson in previous productions.
When approached with the opportunity, Cole said she knew right away it was a project she wanted.
"I've had a blessed life because I've had so much personal and professional freedom and I know that that rests squarely on the shoulders of women like this," she said. "It's very moving to me to be able to look in the other direction."
Cole will portray six women during the production, and each, she noted, worked for Mayo Clinic in a different department.
Cole hoped the audience would feel "the fundamental bravery that each of them had to have in order to make any headway at all, because it was an uphill battle for all of them."
After tonight's live production, a filmed version of the performance will be available to view on the Humanities Channel and Video on Demand through the Mayo Clinic TV Network and on digital copies in the Mayo Clinic Libraries.
Partners who made the events possible include the W. Bruce Fye Center for the History of Medicine; Dolores Jean Lavins Center for Humanities in Medicine with support from the Jack Taylor Family Foundation in Honor of Joseph M. Kiely; and Mayo Clinic Heritage Days, with support from John T. and Lilian G. Mathews.