1964: Postage Stamp Honors the Mayo Brothers #ThrowbackThursday

The image of the stamp was displayed on the Mayo Building in Rochester during the Mayo Clinic Sesquicentennial a few years ago.
The stamp features likenesses of the Mayo brothers from a statue by acclaimed artist James Earle Fraser.

Whether you shop online, hit flea markets and garage sales, or peruse high-end antique stores, one Mayo Clinic-themed collectible item that frequently appears is the postage stamp that depicts William J. Mayo, M.D., and Charles H. Mayo, M.D. In addition to honoring the Mayo brothers, this stamp tells the story of citizen advocacy and the contributions of several artists.

Issued in 1964, the stamp harkens back to an earlier time of communication. Long-distance phone calls were an expensive luxury, and telegrams were limited in the amount of information they could convey (10 words being standard). Letter writing was an art, and penmanship was taught in schools. America’s post-World War II boom brought steady increases in the volume of mail. In 1963, the Postal Service introduced the Zone Improvement Plan, a series of numbers known by the acronym "ZIP code," to make delivery more efficient. That same year, the cost of a first class stamp rose from 4 cents to 5 cents, the amount indicated on the Mayo stamp. That's equivalent to 39 cents today.

With U.S. commemorative stamps in existence since 1893 (starting with the Chicago World Fair), the idea of recognizing people and events on a stamp was well-established. Getting approval for such a designation, however, was an arduous process.

In 1957, Clarence Stearns, a long-time Rochester photographer and friend of the Mayo brothers, began a grassroots effort to lobby for a commemorative stamp. He turned the effort over to Roy Watson, Jr., president of the Rochester-based Kahler Corp., whose hotels and hospitals had been associated with Mayo Clinic for half a century. Tapping into his extensive network of prominent friends, including former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Watson formed a Citizens Advisory Committee that advanced the proposal. In April 1964, the government announced approval of the Mayo stamp. The timing was significant, as 1964 also marked the Mayo Centennial Year, filled with a wide range of educational and cultural programs.

The stamp was designed by Victor McCloskey, Jr., chief of the design division of the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing. He designed many postage stamps throughout his career, as well as the $1 bill still in circulation today. The Mayo stamp features the staff of Asclepius, an ancient Greek god associated with medicine, and is printed in green, the traditional color of medicine.

Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the distinguished Americans who advocated for a stamp in honor of the Mayo brothers.

The image of the Mayo brothers, depicted in profile, is based on the statue of Drs. William and Charles Mayo by James Earle Fraser. Born in Winona, Minnesota, Fraser was a prolific sculptor of American themes. His most notable works include The End of the Trail, symbolizing the Native Americans’ loss of the frontier, and the Indian Head (or Buffalo) nickel, the five-cent coin that was minted from 1913 to 1938. His statue of the Mayo brothers, dedicated in 1952, is a heroic representation of Drs. Will and Charlie. Their pose and the draping of their surgical gowns evoke the statues of Roman emperors who wear togas in classical art. Originally installed in Mayo Memorial Park, the statue has been relocated several times due to expansion of the nearby Mayo Civic Center.

Initial printing of the stamp totaled 120 million. On September 11, 1964, the lobby of the Mayo Building became a temporary U.S. Postal Service substation to sell the “Doctors Mayo” stamp and provide “First Day of Issue” cancellations. Several other locations in Rochester performed similar services to meet the demand from patients, staff, and the public. Nationwide sales began the next day.

Mayo Clinic medical artist John Hutcheson designed the official First Day of Issue cachet envelope.

Postmaster General John Gronouski came to Rochester to dedicate the new stamp. R. Putnam Kingsbury, a Mayo Clinic administrator and stamp enthusiast, led the committee that planned the dedication. During the ceremony, Gronouski said the stamp was “a tribute from a grateful nation for the good works of those men . . . they left us a medical legacy of greatness and generosity.” He presented albums of the new stamp to Mayo family members and other dignitaries.

The Rochester Stamp Club, headed by Charles Tannert, prepared the official cachet envelope for the stamp and held a regional meeting for stamp enthusiasts. John Hutcheson, a Mayo Clinic medical artist, illustrated the cachet envelope. During the first day of sale, the Rochester Post Office handled some 500,000 covers—a remarkable number for a city whose population barely topped 50,000. Today, copies of the stamp and first-day covers are popular collectors’ items.

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.