Seventy-five years after their deaths, Charles and William Mayo's statues still stand in a vastly transformed Rochester.
"If you want to see their legacy, one only has to stand in Rochester and look around," said Peter Kernahan, a lecturer in history of medicine at the University of Minnesota who is working on biographies of the brothers.
Buildings have come and gone around them. The Rochester population has more than tripled. And Mayo Clinic has expanded both in and beyond the city. All of it is in some way part of the legacy the Mayo brothers created, a legacy of vast impact on medicine and the foundation of one of the best medical centers in the nation. But few are left who remember the two great men simply as people, as brothers with faults and virtues, as husbands, and as fathers.
"Charlie" allowed his kids to pile on him on the couch at the end of a long day and "Will" assigned letter grades to his westerns, giving the "F" books to his nephews, as Charles W. Mayo writes in his autobiography.
"Time tends to deify my grandfather, my father and Uncle Will until their personalities seem no more human than the heroic bronze statues of them that stand in the park in Rochester," Mayo writes. "In the public mind, they have solidified into attitudes of permanent nobility."
Yet they were self-professed ordinary people who attributed their vast success largely to time and circumstance — and to being born into medicine.
"It never occurred to us that we could be anything but doctors." – William J. Mayo
William and Charles Mayo started their work as young boys, helping treat the gunshot wounds of a stagecoach driver shot by robbers at the early ages of four and eight, according to Charles W. Mayo's autobiography. At the disputed age of somewhere between 8 and 18, Charles helped administer an anesthetic when his father's assistant became ill.
Their father raised them in medicine, performing surgeries in their midst and tutoring them in anatomy using the bones of an American Indian. The elder William Mayo was a constant traveler who moved to Rochester in 1863, bringing his family in 1864 and setting up a medical practice.
Through their lives, Charlie and Will moved from cleaning the offices to assisting their father to taking over work with his patients. Will attended the University of Michigan, Charlie went to Chicago Medical College.
"A doctor's practice is a mortal thing, mortal as the human being at its core," Helen Clapesattle writes in her biography of The Doctors Mayo. "The product of a lifetime's labor in medical practice will perish with its creator unless there is a successor to whom he may transfer … the mantle of custom and confidence he has woven."
Will and Charlie took up that mantle, and in 1883, their trajectory as small-town doctors changed drastically at the hands of nature and the vision of the Sisters of St. Francis.
On a humid Tuesday in August of 1883, a tornado flew through Rochester, killing many and injuring more. Dr. William Mayo started treating them and, with the help of the Sisters of St. Francis and other doctors, set up a makeshift hospital.
After the crisis had passed, Mother Mary Alfred Moes approached Mayo about setting up a hospital that he would take charge of and she and the sisters would fund. He agreed, and Saint Marys Hospital opened in 1889.
"Once you start studying medicine you never get through with it." – Charles H. Mayo
Throughout their careers and past their retirement, the brothers continued to study, learn, and share their knowledge with others. They complemented each other in personality and work — Will, the stern, well-spoken professional and Charlie, the amiable, sometimes rumpled figure.
Will had married a childhood friend, Hattie Damon, and Charlie married Edith Graham, the first anesthetist at Saint Marys Hospital. For a time, they lived in houses side by side, and although the wives refused to build a connecting passageway, the brothers built a speaking tube between the two dwellings.
Their partnership allowed them to expand their knowledge two-fold. One brother would leave the hospital to travel to clinics and observe surgeries while the other continued working. Upon his return, they would share methods and knowledge acquired during the journey with each other and their associates, then the other would leave for awhile.
"It's a very remarkable partnership — they very much complemented each other," Kernahan said.
They traveled by train and steamship across America, to Europe, to Japan — all over the world in a time where international travel took weeks.
"There was a lot of visiting," Kernahan said. "Will Mayo would go abroad, Charlie Mayo would go abroad. Leading surgeons from Europe would come visit the medical centers in the United States, and the Mayo Clinic was one of the places where they stopped at."
Early in life the brothers traveled to learn, and later they also traveled to teach.
"They weren't afraid to share their knowledge with others, really promoting the first group practice of medicine," said Mayo Clinic Historical Archives Specialist Nicole Babcock.
Before, doctors were usually independent, hesitant to share patients or work in groups, she said.
"The Mayos were really open about that — they wanted other physicians to come and learn."
The Mayos would invite others to observe their work, they would write papers and present at meetings. Along with a handful of other doctors, they established a group practice in which they shared the profits, later becoming a not-for-profit entity.
Their work occupied most of their days, but Will still found time to enjoy long drives in the country and invite groups to join him on his river boat. Charlie, meanwhile, continued his aptitude for mechanics, and is known for constructing the first operating table at St. Marys, a hydraulic elevator for the hospital and, earlier in life, a telephone line stretching from his father's office to the farmhouse.
"He was a very mechanical person," Babcock said. "He put that to good use. He had an innovative mind."
Many who come through the historical suite located on the third floor of the Plummer Building are curious about the many portraits lining the walls, how the brothers died or the art and architecture of the building, Babcock said. In the Board of Governors room, 249 honorary degrees, awards and citations still cover the walls, representing cities and countries across U.S. and world — Ireland, Guatemala, Denmark and Brazil, to name a small fraction.
"I think people are always very much in awe of what they accomplished, that two men could do so much in their lifetime," Babcock said.
"Today the only thing that is permanent is change." – Dr. Charles H. Mayo
In the years since the brothers' deaths, their dedication to the needs of the patient has lived on even as the clinic and town have changed around them.
What started as a family practice run by a small-town doctor has grown into one of the top medical institutions in the country and world, and with those changes the internal culture has also shifted.
Dr. Edward Rosenow III is now retired, but he still remembers what the clinic was like when he arrived in 1960.
"One of the strengths at that time is we only had four elevators in the Mayo Building," Rosenow said. "Everything was in the Mayo Building, and in a day, you would ride up and down anywhere from two to six times, and you would inevitably see somebody you knew because you knew just about everybody."
Two physicians riding together might do a "curbstone consult," stepping off the elevator to give a brief opinion on a joint patient or offering a piece of advice to a colleague. Rosenow recalls coffee breaks in the morning and the afternoon — they weren't rushed, and they didn't have the pressure to keep moving. Other physicians walking by would step in for a cup of coffee and share a few things.
"It was an entirely different feeling we had in those days," Rosenow said. "There was more collegiality, definitely more."
"It was just a given that balance in our life was important. Now, balance is a difficult thing to define and accomplish," Rosenow said. "There was more time in the older days, time for more interaction."
Part of that change is simply a factor of growth — Mayo has expanded both in Rochester and beyond, now boasting clinics in Florida and Arizona as well as the Mayo Clinic Health System.
"Probably the biggest change has been our expansion," Babcock said.
Yet even with the changes in clinic culture, Rosenow said one aspect has remained constant: "They've left the legacy of the patient being of primary importance to everybody."