The Mayos and Their Motorcars #ThrowbackThursday

Electric or gas-powered? It’s a question that drivers ponder as they weigh options for what kind of car to purchase.

Charles Mayo, M.D., wrestled with a similar issue at the dawn of the 20th century. Moreover, Dr. Charlie had to consider another power source for his car that is unheard of today: steam.

In his methodical way, Dr. Charlie studied the situation and reported his findings. His 400-plus references in the medical literature include a letter to the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Published on April 6, 1901, it is entitled “Physicians and the Automobile.”

“I have taken a great interest in the horseless carriage in the past few years, making several trips east to investigate them at exhibitions," wrote Dr. Charlie. A natural mechanic, Dr. Charlie was said to have had the first car in Rochester, which he assembled from a kit.

Automobiles represented a new, disruptive technology. As he reported, “They are in a rapid transition stage of both engine and power transmission . . . . The horse power has been gradually increased from three to nine to enable them to go through the mud and climb the hills.”

Still, motoring was not for the faint of heart. “Electric carriages . . . pound over the rough pavement,” he wrote. The “gasoline carriages have a more or less unpleasant vibration” and the “steam buggy . . . slips and slides about the mud in a most disagreeable manner, while in cold weather there is trouble from the freezing of the pipes and the necessity of keeping the barn warm.”

Dr. Charlie’s conclusion: “Automobiles at present are more or less of a pleasure vehicle for good roads, their perfection not being such as to warrant the physician who purchases one in selling his horse.”

Challenges aside, Dr. Charlie was a motoring enthusiast from the start. William J. Mayo, M.D., was close behind. Both brothers were early adopters of the automobile, which rapidly improved in performance and reliability.

Before long, Dr. Will was traveling about 60,000 miles per year by car, according to his chauffeur Fred Dahle. Within strict legal limits, Dr. Will liked to go fast, although he was never behind the wheel. And he was as meticulous about motoring as he was about medicine. Dahle recalled, “He would ask, ‘When will we be in Kansas City, Fred?’ and I would say, '4:30.' It pleased him enormously when we would arrive at 4:30, not 4:15 or 4:45.”

Dr. Charlie’s reference to “good roads” was prescient. In the early 1900s, fewer than 10% of American roads were paved. In a similar initiative to today’s Destination Medical Center, the brothers championed public-private collaborations that significantly expanded the highway system. Paved roads were a catalyst for economic growth, and they made it easier for patients to travel from ever-greater distances to Mayo Clinic.

For more information about Mayo Clinic history, visit the W. Bruce Fye Center for the History of Medicine and the Mayo Clinic History & Heritage websites.

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.