1879: Calling Dr. Mayo #ThrowbackThursday

May marks the fifth anniversary of the Mayo Clinic app—hailed by tech specialists and consumers alike as “what every patient app should be.” But Mayo’s leadership in telephone communications dates back much farther.

According to family tradition, in 1879, young Charles Mayo—then all of 14 years old—strung together the first telephone link in Rochester. A natural mechanic, the future Dr. Mayo worked without instructions, following pictures and descriptions he had seen in various publications. The technology itself was new. Barely three years before, Alexander Graham Bell received a patent for his invention of the “harmonic telegraph,” which enabled users to “talk with electricity.”

Early adoption of innovative ideas is a hallmark of Mayo Clinic, and this was certainly true of the telephone. Teenagers love to be connected, but Dr. Charles Mayo wasn’t thinking of checking in, posting messages, or updating his status with friends. Instead, he was using the new technology to serve patients—a Mayo family tradition that continues today.

Dr. Charles Mayo strung the wires between his father’s office in downtown Rochester and his family’s farm in the rural outskirts on the southeast side of the city.

Telephones were so new that the local editor had to print this validation of the technology, along with detailed instructions about how to use it:

The telephone line between Dr. Mayo’s office and his residence is now up, the machines, or instruments, whatever they are, in position, and everything working splendidly. Conversation can be carried on just as rapidly and accurately as though the persons talking were only separated by a few feet instead of a mile, and familiar voices can be recognized as easily. Parties wishing to summon the Dr. between 6 and 9 (6 a.m. and 9 p.m.) can do so by making their wants known at Messrs. Geisinger and Newton’s drug store. After 9 p.m. and before 6 a.m., it will be necessary to find Mr. George Tilsbury, the night watch (watchman), who will operate the instrument between the hours named when occasion demands. This will prove not only a convenience but a positive benefit to the Dr. and his patients.
(Rochester, Minnesota: The Record and Union, Dec. 12, 1879)

Even within that ornate Victorian narrative, it’s clear that practice efficiency and patient convenience were the driving forces when William Worrall Mayo, M.D., acquired a telephone.

In 1894, Mayo Clinic's physicians listed their personal telephone numbers on their business cards.

Mayo’s leadership in this field continued across the generations. An 1894 business card listed the growing medical staff—five physicians by that time—each of whom had an individual telephone number.

This is what the switchboard looked like in the 1914 Building.

When designing the original Mayo Clinic building, which opened in 1914, Henry Plummer, M.D., developed the nation’s first interconnecting paging system.

William J. Mayo, M.D., wrote to an associate: “The General Electric Company at first stated his ideas could not be carried out, but finally, he convinced them by a very elaborate series of plans and drawings, which appeared so complex that I refused to inspect them. Frankly, they made me dizzy.”

Mayo Clinic operators field calls in the 1950s.

By 1928, when the Plummer Building opened, the Mayo Clinic switchboard was receiving between 8,000 and 9,000 calls per day. To cope with this volume, the policy was that “absolutely no social calls be put through between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.”

Post-World War II innovations included a telephone computerized electrocardiography service, which began in 1973. As touchpads replaced rotary dials, Mayo Clinic helped pioneer the single-digit prefix for internal calls. The volume of calls today has led to multiple prefixes for Mayo Clinic locations in Arizona, Florida, and Rochester, and across Mayo Clinic Health System. But the goal remains the same as the first published account of telephone service in the Mayo practice: to create “not only a convenience but a positive benefit” for patients and staff.

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.