What It Means to Be American
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The Women Who Built Mayo Clinic

After a Tornado Wrecked a Minnesota Town, Franciscan Nuns and Physicians, Anesthesiologists and Social Workers Helped Create a Pathbreaking Medical Center

Alice Magaw (right) in surgery with Sister Joseph Dempsey and Dr. William Mayo. Courtesy of the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.

By Virginia Wright-Peterson
November 26, 2018

Several years ago, a few colleagues and I discovered a well-kept secret about Mayo Clinic, where we all worked.

We had decided to create a Jeopardy game for Women’s History Month based on women who were involved in the early years of the physician’s practice that evolved into our internationally renowned academic medical center. I offered to visit the clinic’s historical archive, expecting to glean a few little-known facts about the handful of women who were staples of the organization’s 150-year-old history.

To my surprise, the staff in the archive brought me lists, files, and boxes of information about many women I never had heard of before. As a native of Rochester, Minnesota, where the clinic originated, and as an employee for nearly two decades, I was mystified as to how I missed knowing about these women and their important contributions.

Weeks after completing the Jeopardy game, the absence of these women in our local history still unsettled me. I consulted several histories of the region that cover the years when the Mayo practice was emerging from the prairie, expecting to find that women were included and that I had merely missed seeing their stories previously.

But I found very little about women at all.

The most comprehensive early history of the city of Rochester is a pictorial history. I counted 270 photographs in the book and only 49 of them—18 percent—are of women. There are nearly as many images of horses in the book as there are of women. That was my tipping point, and I embarked on a quest to uncover the stories of these significant women.

Mayo Clinic’s early years were documented in an 800-page book with hundreds of citations, but this seemingly comprehensive history included only scant mention of women. So I dove into the many files provided by the archive staff, and over four years I collected the stories of more than 40 women who made important contributions during Mayo Clinic’s founding years.

Dr. William Worrall Mayo began practicing medicine in Rochester during the Civil War. His sons joined him after medical school and together they built a practice in leased office space downtown.

In 1883, a devastating tornado hit the small prairie town, killing 40 people and leaving 500 people homeless.

As the town was recovering, Mother Alfred Moes, the mother superior of a Franciscan congregation of sisters, envisioned the need for a hospital to meet the needs of the community. She persistently approached Dr. Mayo, who was reluctant to start a hospital because of the cost and poor reputations of hospitals at the time. But eventually he agreed that, if she and the sisters built it, he and his sons would care for patients there. In 1889, after six years of giving music lessons and selling handicrafts to fund the hospital, the Sisters opened Saint Marys Hospital with 27 beds and two operating rooms, a venue that became the cornerstone of a successful surgical practice.

The Clinic’s renowned nursing care began within weeks of the hospital opening. Edith Graham, the youngest of 13 children from a farm outside of Rochester, took the train to Chicago with three other young women to obtain nursing diplomas. After graduation, Edith returned to Rochester and began teaching the Sisters the latest in nursing practices, establishing a sound basis for nursing care in the facility.

Alice Magaw, who also went to Chicago for nurse’s training, would develop a method for administering anesthesia at Saint Marys that set the national standard. Considered the “Mother of Anesthesia,” she documented 14,000 cases without an anesthesia-related death, greatly contributing to the excellent surgical outcomes that Mayo physicians achieved in the early days and upon which they established their reputation.

The Mayo Clinic would not be the internationally renowned medical center that it is today without the contributions of many women who are left out of its history.

In 1892, Sister Joseph Dempsey followed Mother Alfred as the administrator of Saint Marys Hospital, a role she held for 47 years. Under her competent leadership, the hospital grew from 27 beds to 600, making it the largest and arguably finest privately owned hospital in the country. At the opening reception of the seven-story expansion of the hospital in 1922, Dr. Henry S. Plummer, one of the most esteemed physicians in the Mayo practice, declared: “Only someone of great genius and great faith would dare to double the size of this already great hospital…. Sister Joseph had the vision and greatness to do it.”

In 1899, Dr. Gertrude Booker Granger became the second physician outside of the Mayo family to join the practice. She assumed responsibility for the ophthalmology cases, making her the first specialist at the clinic. She also made many important contributions to public health in Rochester. Shortly after Granger’s arrival, several more women physicians became part of the clinical practice and research.

Another important addition was Mayo’s head librarian. From her arrival in 1907 to her death in 1936, Maud Mellish Wilson expanded the clinic’s national and international reputation. As a gifted editor as well as librarian, she assured that the medical articles the Mayo doctors wrote were of the highest quality. She also started the highly influential medical journal known today as Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

Women joined the Mayo practice as social workers, caring for the non-medical needs of patients. These included unescorted children sent from across the country, and Jewish patients whose dietary needs and customs at death were unfamiliar to the Mayo doctors. Women, mostly nurses, from Mayo Clinic also deployed to France during World War I and cared for wounded and ill soldiers 50 miles from the front.

Put simply, Mayo Clinic would not be the internationally renowned medical center that it is today without the contributions of many women who are left out of the history.

To its credit, Mayo Clinic supported my research and writing to fill in the missing pieces of history, but the Mayo history is not the only record that has overlooked women. I am now researching the contributions that women in the Midwest made during World War II in the military, industry, and home. I am running into more gender bias as I consult books, even recently published, with titles such as World War II: A Complete History, which include very few women, despite the reality that millions served in the armed forces, millions worked in industries, and millions supported home front activities vital to the war effort.

And of course, the problem of underrecognition is broader, to the point of being pervasive. Very few trade biographies published each year are about women. Our daily newspapers and news feeds, which form our most immediate historical records, reveal significant gender inequity as well.

The trouble with biased histories is that they endure. Even Ken Burns’ documentary of Mayo Clinic, which first aired in September 2018, gives well-deserved recognition to the Sisters of Saint Francis, but only briefly acknowledges a few other women, mostly the spouses. The critical contributions of Alice Magaw, Maud Mellish Wilson, and other important women are left unrecognized.

What began for me as a desire to set the Mayo Clinic record straight has become a commitment to find and proliferate the contributions of as many women as I can during my career. I hope others will join me in this endeavor.

Virginia Wright-Peterson teaches writing at University of Minnesota Rochester and is the author of Women of Mayo Clinic: The Founding Generation.

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