"No one is big enough to be independent of others," once said Dr. William W. Mayo. By working with others, he found his greatest success as a doctor. His efforts, along with his two sons, resulted in the Mayo Clinic, one of the most famous and most respected medical institutions in the nation.


William Worrall Mayo was born in England in 1819, the son of a carpenter. He studied as a chemist and immigrated to the United States in 1846.


Mayo’s route to success, as is the case for so many, was not a straight line. He struggled after his arrival in America. He initially worked as a pharmacist at Bellevue Hospital in New York City; but in spite of the respectability of the position and the steady paycheck, he was not content.


He steadily moved west. He received medical degrees at Indiana Medical College and the University of Missouri and eventually reached Minnesota by 1854. He tried a variety of jobs in addition to medicine, including farmer, newspaper publisher, census taker, and justice of the peace in Rochester in Southeast Minnesota. When the Civil War began, he attempted to become a military surgeon but was rejected. He opened a medical office in Rochester in 1863 but would move several times in the next few years.


His two sons, William James Mayo, born in 1861, and Charles Mayo, born in 1865, became doctors. The elder brother commented many years later that it never occurred to them to be anything else.


Eventually, Mayo settled permanently in Rochester and became active in local politics. He served on the Rochester health board starting in the 1870s and rose through the ranks as an alderman, mayor, and state senator by the early 1890s.


As a result of a deadly tornado that tore through Rochester in 1883, a group of Roman Catholic nuns led by Mother Mary Moes called for the construction of a hospital. Mayo helped Moes organize the effort, and the 12-bed St. Mary’s Hospital opened in 1889, with Moes and her fellow nuns as nurses and Mayo and his two sons, who had already completed medical school, as surgeons with their own clinic attached to the facility. This separate clinic became the famed Mayo Clinic.


The elder Mayo retired in 1892, but the sons continued the work and steadily brought in more physicians as the practice expanded. He died in 1911.


Within a few years, Dr. Henry Plummer was brought in as a partner and worked to expand the facility into a multi-specialty clinic, steadily attracting a number of the top doctors in the field. Under the leadership of the Mayo Brothers and their partners, the Mayo Clinic developed a reputation for innovation and research in medicine. The specializations allowed the clinic to more readily diagnose and treat conditions that may have eluded other doctors working independently. Plummer himself was a nationally-recognized expert in thyroid conditions. By 1905, for example, the clinic had become the first to use frozen tissue samples during surgery to determine whether patients had cancer. With the success of the clinic, the partners transformed the practice into a not-for-profit organization by 1915.


Charles and William Mayo were also known for their quick wit. According to one story, William Mayo was once approached by a potential patient and asked, "Are you the head doctor?" He replied, "No, my brother is the head doctor. I’m the belly doctor."


The two brothers believed in the importance of educating the public about medical issues to improve health. "Medicine can be used only as people are educated to its accomplishments, Dr. Charles Mayo once said. To that end, by 1916 both brothers were named to the Committee of American Physicians for Medical Preparedness as World War I approached. They both served in the army reserves during the war, advising on the best approaches to treating the troops and traveled extensively giving speeches on breakthroughs in medicine. By the end of World War I in 1918, they were both promoted to brigadier general and received the Distinguished Service Medal for their extensive service to the army medical corps.


A third generation of Mayo doctors would come to work at the clinic. William Mayo’s two daughters both married doctors who worked at the clinic, and Charles Mayo’s two sons served as physicians at the clinic. Even to the present day, Mayo descendants still work for the clinic.


"Medical science aims at the truth and nothing but the truth," William Mayo said in 1929. He shared the optimism of many medical professionals of the early twentieth century for the potential that medicine held for the future. In an interview in 1931, he predicted that in another 80 years – by 2011 -- life expectancy in the United States would exceed 70 years. His prediction came true as life expectancy in the U. S. is now 78.


By 1930, the Mayo Clinic had treated one million patients. The two brothers died within months of each other in 1939. By that point, the Mayo Clinic had established an international reputation. The Mayo Clinic now operates dozens of clinics across the nation, mostly in the upper Midwest, but partners with hospitals and specialists around the country, including in Texas.


Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at drkenbridges@gmail.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.