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75 years ago, Mayo brothers died

Charles Horace Mayo
Charles Horace Mayo poses in a surgical gown.

A red-and-black printed sign hanging in Dr. Charles Mayo's office reads: "There's no fun like work."

Down a hallway lined with academic robes and surgical gowns, his brother William's office sits with a different motto propped in a small brown frame on his desk: "He loved the truth and sought to know it."

The two brothers lived into those mottos, continuing to pursue work and knowledge long after their supposed retirements from the clinic. The two lived and worked side by side throughout their lives, and, in death, died only two months apart, 75 years ago this summer.

But in death, neither could stand at the other's bedside. Their deaths led to an outpouring of grief for the two men who had built Mayo Clinic into what it is today, and who had touched so many.

Will discovered he had stomach cancer in the spring of 1939 — his ultimate downfall stemming from the organ he had so long specialized in. He was recovering well from a surgery when Charlie decided to travel to Chicago for a fitting of some suits he had ordered, according to The Doctors Mayo.


While there, Charlie succumbed to pneumonia at the age of 73, dying in a Chicago hospital at 4:55 p.m. on May 26, 1939. With him were his wife, son, and three of his daughters, but Will was too sick to travel to his brother's bedside.

Will could not even attend his brother's funeral and died only two months later at the age of 78 at 4 a.m. on Friday, July 28, 1939. His wife and two daughters stood by his side.

"There seemed something natural about Uncle Will's death, once Father had gone," wrote the nephew and son, Charles W. Mayo.

Charlie's body lay in state at the Clinic for two days, with an endless line slowly walking past. His wife fumed at the discovery that the undertaker had trimmed his shaggy eyebrows, a Mayo trait, according to his son's biography. The funeral took place at Mayowood, attended only by the family and those close to them. That morning, Charlie's grandchildren gathered wild roses, scattering them around the coffin.

Will's body lay in state at the Foundation House, the home he gave to the Mayo Clinic Foundation a year before. His associates in general surgery served as pall bearers, and the mayor issued a proclamation that the Sunday would be set aside as a day of sorrow in all the churches and that all citizens join in paying tribute to "Rochester's illustrious departed son."

The brothers' deaths shook the medical world, spurring a tide of tributes, articles and personal letters and telegrams from nations around the world, from presidents and housewives, from wealthy and poor. Coupled with the death earlier that year of Sister Mary Joseph — Dr. Will's first assistant in surgery for almost 25 years — the clinic experienced in a single year the sudden end of its historic leadership.

"It was the ending of an era," said Historical Archives Specialist Nicole Babcock. "It was difficult for people who were just used to having them around — the leadership and that whole chapter was now closing and it was time to move on to the next one."

The legacy of the Mayo brothers


William James Mayo

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