1830s and 1840s: Mayo’s First Mentor #ThrowbackThursday

John Dalton

When making an announcement or accepting a professional recognition, William J. Mayo, M.D., and Charles Mayo, M.D., often spoke in terms of “my brother and I” and “our father taught us.” These statements are some of the institution’s earliest examples of teamwork, collaboration, and mentoring—qualities that remain key aspects of Mayo Clinic today. But the question arises: "If the Mayo brothers learned from their father, what were the influences that shaped his values?"

To find the answer, it helps to explore the childhood of William Worrall Mayo, M.D. (1819–1911).

Dr. William Worrall Mayo was born in Salford, near Manchester, England. The area where he grew up was the Silicon Valley of its day, the epicenter of the Industrial Revolution. He witnessed economic progress as well as exploitation from the new technology. Several authors attribute his strong social conscience, which he passed along to his sons, to this influence.

One individual had a particularly strong impact on Dr. William Worrall Mayo during these impressionable years. Dr. Mayo’s mentor was an eminent scientist named John Dalton. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Dalton was a “meteorologist and chemist, a pioneer in development of modern atomic theory” who wrote “the first publication on color blindness.” If you studied the periodic table of elements, you’ve also encountered Dalton’s contribution to science.

Mutual misfortune brought Dalton and Dr. William Worrall Mayo together.

Dr. William Worrall Mayo's father James died when Dr. William Worrall Mayo was only 7 years old. James Mayo had worked as a skilled carpenter, but there was no insurance or worker’s compensation. Dr. Mayo's mother Anne was left with six children. Tragedy continued to stalk the family, as two of Dr. Mayo's sisters died within the next five years.

Dr. William Worrall Mayo’s medical diploma from the University of Missouri in St. Louis, 1854.

Anne Mayo moved her family to a smaller house. England did not offer free public education, but she was able to manage the cost for Dr. William Worrall Mayo and James Mayo, Jr., his elder brother by two years, to complete their elementary schooling. She hired a tutor to help them in Greek and Latin. The boys would have studied literature, composition, and mathematics—but not science, which had no part in the classical curriculum.

Dr. William Worrall Mayo had a better primary education than many children in England at the time. However, Anne Mayo could not afford tuition for a secondary school, much less for a university.

At the same time, Dalton found his own access to higher education was equally blocked. Universities and colleges, virtually all of which were directed or heavily influenced by the Church of England, would not accept a faculty member with his Quaker beliefs. Barred from teaching at a prestigious institution, Dalton ran a school for a handful of students at the Literary and Philosophical Society in Manchester, a convenient distance from Anne Mayo’s house.

Somehow, the boy who could not afford tuition and the scientist who could not get a faculty position found each other. Dr. William Worrall Mayo attended Dalton’s school and described it as a transformative experience. Biographer Judith Hartzell identified three qualities of John Dalton that Dr. William Worrall Mayo emulated and, in turn, passed on to his sons, who founded Mayo Clinic:

  • Merit and individual effort
    Dalton and Dr. William Worrall Mayo valued the dignity of labor rather than the privileges of birth.
  • Respect for all people
    Church-run schools at the time were for males only. By contrast, Dalton enrolled girls and boys. All his life, Dr. William Worrall Mayo found company with strong, independent women.
  • Scientific method
    Dalton believed in applying natural facts to practical effect in serving others. Dalton modeled the scientific method through observation, measurement, and inquiry.

Dalton may have influenced his student’s choice of medicine as a career. As a young man, Dalton had wanted to pursue medicine, but his uncle argued against it. Undaunted, Dalton studied medicine on his own and, with some compatriots, founded the Manchester School of Medicine. It's unknown if Dr. William Worrall Mayo ever visited the school, but he was likely aware of it.

At this point, medicine would have been a dream for Dr. William Worrall Mayo. He needed to work and, being good with his hands, apprenticed himself at age 14 to a tailor. No longer able to attend Dalton’s school, it is possible that he attended some evening classes that Dalton offered. According to Hartzell, “Mayo became Dalton’s assistant in doing chemical experiments and recording the results.”

Mayo completed his internship at age 21 and opened his own shop in Manchester, making men’s clothing. John Dalton died on July 27, 1844. By this time, he was a man of renown in Manchester. More than 40,000 people paid their respects, and his funeral procession stretched for almost a mile. One can imagine 25-year-old Dr. William Worrall Mayo among the crowd.

It’s also worth pondering what the young man was thinking as he bid farewell to his mentor and considered the future. By his own description, Dr. William Worrall Mayo was “small of stature, five feet four, thin of flesh, weighing 120 pounds, but wiry and active and capable of great endurance and fortitude.”

Restlessness stirred and horizons beckoned. Exactly two years after Dalton’s funeral, Dr. William Worrall Mayo was crossing the Atlantic Ocean, bound for a new life in the U.S.

Dr. William Worrall Mayo’s ship landed in New York City on August 22, 1846. He worked briefly at Bellevue Hospital and began a westward trek that led to Indiana and Minnesota. Like many immigrants, he held different jobs as he established himself. At various times, he worked as a tailor, riverboat pilot, surveyor, and newspaper editor. He never lost his love of science, however, and earned a medical degree from Indiana Medical College in La Porte. It was hardly the Ivy League, but the school had a microscope as part of its curriculum 20 years before Harvard. In 1854, he earned a second medical degree—at a time when most physicians had no formal education in medicine—from the University of Missouri.

It was not until the 1860s, after moving to Minnesota, that Dr. William Worrall Mayo began the full-time practice of medicine. By the time he and his wife Louise were rearing their children, he was able and eager to pass along the scientific spirit. His first mentor helped inspire those conversations. Years later, his youngest son, Dr. Charles Mayo, recalled: “Father was always talking about Dalton. He simply enthused him with chemistry.”

Alyssa Frank

Alyssa Frank is a Marketing Segment Manager at Mayo Clinic Laboratories. She leads marketing strategies for product management and specialty testing. Alyssa has worked at Mayo Clinic since 2015.