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Mayo Clinic Laboratories: The “Global Reference Laboratory”

On its 50th anniversary, 50 (mostly chronological) facts about Mayo Clinic Laboratories, which started out with a card table receiving area and led to Mayo’s first expense account, first company car, first sales team, and the first time that Mayo truly moved outside serving its own patients. And, today, features more than 65 specialty laboratories serving 4,000 national and international clients and averaging 35,000 tests per day.

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A group of lab workers sorts specimens at Mayo Clinic Laboratories in an undated Mayo Clinic photograph.

1. Mayo needed new revenue to fund more research. In the early 1970, Mayo Clinic’s Board of Governors was considering new ways to bring in revenue—and new ways to fund more research and education. They decided to open a laboratory—a testing facility for specimens like blood, urine, and tissue samples—that would serve other hospitals.

2. The lab was founded on St. Patrick’s Day. On March 17, 1971, after much investigation, hesitation, and deliberation, the Regional Laboratory—now Mayo Clinic Laboratories—was founded.

3. And St. Patrick’s Day may have been meaningful. The date was not lost on Dr. Michael O’Sullivan, who was appointed the lab’s first medical director. O’Sullivan was an Irish immigrant from Listowel, a little town in County Kerry. “I don’t think it was merely coincidence,” he says. “I think good ole St. Patrick was smiling down on us.”

4. This lab marked the first time in Mayo Clinic’s history that the institution would get involved with the community practice of pathology to serve outside patients in the region and beyond.

5. Before this, Mayo was entirely an academic institution, serving only its own patients.

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6. The first step was to create a regional lab—for an area encompassing south of the Twin Cities and northern Iowa—that would cater to smaller hospitals in need of pathology services.

7. The second step would be to create a national reference lab, which meant developing the systems, forms, and transportation so that both regional and more national clients could send their specimens to Rochester.

8. But first, that regional lab had to succeed.

9. Mayo had no sales force at the time. Courting clients—those regional hospitals—fell on Dr. O’Sullivan and Gerald (Jerry) Wollner, O’Sullivan’s righthand man in this endeavor.

10. This led to the Clinic’s first expense accounts. Wollner and O’Sullivan were the first two people in Mayo’s history to be given an expense account for gas, hotels, and meals to support their sales calls.

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Pathologists Dr. George Farrow (standing, left) and Dr. Lewis Woolner (standing, right).

11. And the first company car. Wollner and O’Sullivan were given a company car for such trips. Before that, the men were using their own vehicles.

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12. It took two years to get that company car. But finally, in 1973, Wollner says, “they bought us a four-door Plymouth.”

13. Many regional hospitals—as well as pathologists who practiced alone in Minnesota cities like Austin, Albert Lea, and Red Wing-—signed on fairly quickly to be a part of Mayo’s pathology services.

14. The first test specimens (blood, urine, and tissue samples) started coming to the Regional Laboratory in the spring of 1971.

15. In its first week, the lab received 25 test requests. By midsummer of 1971, the lab had 14 clients.

16. The lab was initially located in the lower level of the 1914 Building. Shortly thereafter, the lab moved to a small area on the first floor of the Plummer Building.

17. Client specimens were received in a back room on the first floor of the Plummer Building.

18. The first receiving area was a card table. “At the time, our receiving area amounted to a small card table because we really didn’t need a lot of room yet,” says Susan Towers, who was the lab’s 11th hire.

19. For the month of July 1971, the lab performed 219 tests and earned $3,000 in revenue.

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20. By the end of its first year, the lab had 83 clients and had performed 1,600 tests, with a revenue of $26,000.

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Customer service supervisor Jennifer Crawford (left) and customer service representative Pamela Speltz, supporting laboratory operations.

21. They hit 100 tests in a day after one year. Dr. O’Sullivan remembers one standout day in March of 1972, “That evening, my wife and I hosted a little dinner party at our home,” he says. “And we celebrated that first day we hit 100 specimens.”

22. Another landmark day, circa 1973: The team processed 175 specimens for the first time. “We worked like crazy to get those done,” says Towers.

23. Then the team went to what was most likely Michaels. “At the end of the day, we were so excited because it was a huge number for us,” says Towers. “It was such a big deal that our manager took us out for dinner that night. We went to the nicest restaurant in downtown Rochester at the time. We had steak and lobster, and just celebrated this accomplishment.”

24. They built their first containers to carry specimens from what was available at the Clinic. “Some specimens could be handled in ambient temperature, and others had to be in a frozen state,” says Wollner. “So we built a container out of Styrofoam that would hold three blood specimens and two half-pint containers of urine. We used standard Mayo Clinic materials, and we found that some of them just didn’t stand up in the delivery process.”

25. They also discovered that the specimens and samples were, well, being treated like every other package. “We also found out that when blood samples go through the post office and go on airplanes, they don’t get handled that gingerly,” says Wollner.

26. Mishandled specimens meant things like thawed tissue. Which meant the samples would be ruined. “We had tissue specimens coming in that were thawed,” says Wollner. “And the laboratory couldn’t use those specimens. Those were always difficult calls to make back to a customer, saying, ‘Sorry, but your specimen thawed in transit, and we need a new one.”

27. Soon, they changed the way specimens were shipped. And not just for Mayo Clinic. “We had a new molded Styrofoam box built for us by a company in Wisconsin,” says Wollner. “We literally solved the problem as quickly as that box could be made.”

28. Up through the mid-1980s, the lab went without a sales force of any kind.

29. In 1985, to test the waters for “selling” more of their lab services, a pilot study was implemented in which 12 staff members were chosen to be salespeople.

30. Those dozen staffers received a “crash course” on sales. ”They gave us a crash course on Mayo Clinic Laboratories, the logistics, customer service, etc.,” says Marie Brown, who was one of the 12.

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A technician tests a sample in this undated Mayo Clinic photograph.

31. In 1986, the new sales staff got a territory. “They divided the five-state area into regions, and we were each assigned a territory,” says Brown. “The purpose was to call on hospitals, clinics, and pathology practices and tell them about Mayo Clinic Laboratories, give them a test catalog, and encourage them to send their tests to us.”

32. They invited family members to the big meetings. In the summer, meetings were held in Midge Lake in Northern Minnesota. It wasn’t just the sales reps, but also their families who were invited. Dr. Curtis Bakken [the lab’s medical director] was very conscientious of people being away from home and, therefore, he strongly encouraged all family members to attend.

33. The pilot sales effort was deemed successful and, over the course of 1987-88, another dozen sales reps were hired.

34. Company credit cards? Yes. Although the lab now had an official sales force, it took some time for the sales reps to convince leadership they needed credit cards for expenses, but they eventually got them, along with a company car.

35. “Mine was a red 1988 Ford Taurus,” recalls Don Flott, one of the early sales reps.

36. You needed a map. And coins for the payphones. “The most important things you had to have in your car were a map and a plastic bag full of loose change for making calls from payphones along the way, to set up and confirm your appointments,” says Flott. “And the only marketing tools that we had were our business card and the test catalog.”

37. In 1995, Mayo decided to offer its pathology services around the world. A sales group was formed with representatives from the hospital practice, the laboratories within Mayo Clinic Laboratories, and other areas. Flott became a point man for this team effort.

38. They made those same sales calls, but worldwide. “We traveled to places I would have never imagined visiting,” Flott says. “The Middle East, Asia, South America, and other countries of the world that were beginning to privatize their medicine and health care.”

39. Mayo’s key selling point was the same 50 years ago as it is today: a rarified expertise in the niche of “esoteric testing” for the most unique, complex, and difficult cases.

40. The worldwide sales campaign was a “huge success” and helped put Mayo and Mayo Clinic Laboratories on the international stage.

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An early view of the Mayo Clinic Laboratories sales force, circa 1989.

41. The name “Mayo Medical Laboratories” was changed to Mayo Clinic Laboratories in 2018, a landmark rebranding.

42. Coincidence? The rebranding dovetailed perfectly with the Ken Burns documentary, “The Mayo Clinic,” which aired on PBS that same year.

43. When the lab first started in 1971, there were two lab techs doing the testing.

44. Today, Mayo Clinic Laboratories has over 65 specialty laboratories located in a two-story building of 279,000 square feet in Rochester.

45. Mayo Clinic Laboratories now has more than 4,000 national and international clients and, in normal circumstances, averages about 35,000 tests per day.

46. Many of the samples arrive on the Boeing 757 FedEx flight that lands at 5 a.m, five days a week at Rochester International Airport.

47. Of the 45,000 pounds of daily FedEx freight, the 250 or so daily packages-—some containing numerous samples--for Mayo Clinic Laboratories are the first things unloaded.

48. They get to Mayo quickly. Those packages—containing thousands of samples-—arrive at Mayo within a half hour of touchdown.

49. In November of 2020, a peak month for COVID-19 cases, Mayo Clinic Laboratories was performing roughly 100,000 tests per day.

50. “When I look back on it all,” says Dr. O’Sullivan, who retired in 2002 as CEO of Mayo Clinic’s Arizona campus, “I think, ‘My god, look at where we are today.’”

Compiled from info by Christoph Bahn, Mayo Clinic, and Mayo Clinic Laboratories

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January Issue