Decades ago, one of Bruce and Lois Fye's frequent book-buying tours came to an unceremonious halt when their overburdened vehicle bottomed out, and the muffler was left behind on a Connecticut highway.
Lois can only shake her head and ruefully smile at the not-so-fond memory. However, her husband's unusual passion set the stage for one of the world's most esteemed cardiologists to have his name prominently displayed on Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus.
W. Bruce Fye recently donated 9,000 rare, valuable books — including early copies of Charles Darwin's "The Origin of Species" — to Mayo Clinic's History of Medicine Library. The clinic's private library, which is only viewed about 10 times per month by traveling dignitaries, has since been renamed in Fye's honor.
The 69-year-old retired Mayo Clinic doctor declined to share the monetary value of his donated collection, but it's believed to be a significant acquisition for Mayo Clinic. Fye called Mayo a logical recipient.
"When I was going through the (donated) books, it was a really good feeling," Fye said. "It was surprising in some ways, but it was absolutely the right thing to do. I think Mayo Clinic is a magical place — and I'm not paid to say that. I just really believe it."
Fye was chosen as the Post-Bulletin's newsmaker of the year in the health field.
The intensely private man allowed the dedication to pass with little fanfare, but it cements his place within the medical world. The Johns Hopkins graduate previously served as president of the American College of Cardiology and the American Association for the History of Medicine. He's also an award-winning author on medical history.
The departure of 9,000 books — or 11,000, if you include the 2,000 more he donated to Assisi Heights — from the family home in Southwest Rochester created a space that was quickly claimed by his crafty wife. She quilts for Pine Needles and recently sewed 100 dresses that were donated to children in Haiti.
Lois knew what she was getting into when they exchanged wedding vows 46 years ago, but the muffler incident remains a vivid memory.
"We had so many books that I couldn't even put my feet on the ground and the muffler was dragging," Lois said. "It was so embarrassing."
Fye purchased his first couple hundred books at an auction when he was still in high school, kickstarting the acquisition addiction. The collection had ballooned to weigh 32,000 pounds when the couple trekked cross-country to accept a new job in Marshfield, Wis.
By the time the couple moved to Rochester in 2000, his collection included about 30,000 books that tipped the scales at 120,000 pounds, once prompting a visit from The History Channel. The 2,500 boxes of books filled four moving trucks and took professional movers four days to unpack in the Fye's custom-built, library-like home.
Fye hasn't added to his collection since moving to Rochester — "My own collection was so extensive that, frankly, it's very hard to find something that I don't have," he says — but the recent donations have only cut his numbers by about a third.
His two daughters frequently ask him what's going to become of his extensive collection. He's still searching for an answer.
"I'm still trying to figure out what the hell I'm going to do with all of this stuff," Fye says.
Still, it's served a very specific purpose over the decades.
He developed his own personal filing system, allowing him quick access to research materials in one of the best medical libraries in the world. He catalogues all of his books on an old 70 MB hard drive that's still functioning after decades of use.
He's always negotiated time in his contract for personal research and frequently has published thoughtful medical pieces in prominent journals, plus a 672-page bookpublished earlier this year that covers the history of the Mayo Clinic. The book took him 15 years to construct, and his notes now fill an entire room at his home.
"I realized this was a terrific way to marry my passion for old books and journals with questions," Fye said. "As I sort of began to research themes, I discovered there was almost nothing written on medical history. I was like a new discoverer, sort of like the people who discovered Yosemite or Antarctica."
That professional interest also paved the way for a successful side business. He started his own bookselling project out of his home in 1972. The pre-Internet days made it a faceless enterprise that he kept totally separate from his medical practice.
But he's also got a secret: Despite owning all of those books, he never reads for pleasure. That remains a sore point for his wife, who gifted him "The Poisoner's Handbook"years ago that still has yet to be cracked open.
"I'm a recovering bibliophile," Fye said. "It's a very descriptive phrase that really captures everything … but that (love for reading is) always a funny false assumption."
Fye is a willing conversationalist who misses his daily interaction with Mayo Clinic staff. However, he's so protective of his personal time that he often wishes that he'd retired earlier.
He describes himself as a "precrastinator," tackling his to-do list well before any of his deadlines ever draw near. It's led to a quirky lifestyle of self-imposed isolation.
"I'm a very social person when I'm in a group, but I'm very content being alone," Fye said. "My research has always been very self contained. The total amount of time that I've had a research assistant was probably two weeks because I want to do everything myself.
"It's the social isolation that's sort of annoying. Sometimes I wish we were invited to more things — because we'd go — but at this point in time, I've always been very, very protective of my time because I've been juggling all of these things."
The couple embraced Marshfield for 22 years largely because the rural Wisconsin city afforded them few distractions. The move to Rochester created more social opportunities, but the Fyes haven't changed their lifestyles while remaining engrossed in their personal pursuits.
"I would tease that Marshfield was a place with no social obligations and no social opportunities," Fye said. "It's a funny thing. We moved to Rochester in 2000 and made almost no effort to develop a circle of friends."
Despite that steadfast devotion to his craft, the retired doctor has attracted a legion of local admirers. Mayo Clinic President and CEO John Noseworthy has embraced Fye's inquisitive nature, opening up the archives for Fye to peruse without supervision and once greeting hundreds of Fye's history colleagues with a lengthy, well-researched greeting focused on Mayo's famous origin.
Matt Dacy, director of Mayo's Heritage Hall Museum, offered praise for his fellow history buff.
"Dr. Fye has made many important contributions to Mayo Clinic – as a medical leader in his specialty field, as the founding director of the history of medicine center that now bears his name, as the author of a comprehensive history of our institution published by Oxford University Press and as a benefactor who has donated significant volumes of medical history from his acclaimed personal collection," Dacy said via statement. "Dr. Fye's energy, insights and enthusiasm are an inspiration, as is the support he so generously gives to colleagues and patients."