1830s–1844: Mayo’s Mentor, John Dalton #ThrowbackThursday

What could have been misfortune turned out to be a positive experience in the education of William Worrall Mayo.

About the same time that his path to higher education was blocked by a lack of funds, a brilliant scientist named John Dalton found it impossible to get a university faculty position because of prejudice against his Quaker beliefs.

Dalton was a meteorologist, chemist, and pioneer in the development of the atomic theory. He also wrote the first scientific description of color blindness. Unable to become a professor, he ran a class in a room he rented from the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. At some point in this time period, young Mayo enrolled. It became a transformative experience. Years later, Dr. Charles H. Mayo said, “Father was always talking about Dalton. He simply enthused him with chemistry.”

Since Dalton’s records were destroyed in the Nazi German attack on Manchester during World War II, we do not know the particulars of Mayo’s education with Dalton. It is possible, however, to discern how Dalton may have influenced the academic interests and character of his student:

  • Merit and individual effort – Dalton and Mayo valued the dignity of labor rather than the privileges of birth.
  • Respect for all people – Church-run schools at the time only admitted boys. By contrast, Dalton enrolled girls as well. All his life, William Worrall Mayo found company with strong, independent women.
  • Scientific method – Dalton believed in discovering natural facts and applying them for practical benefit in serving others. He modeled the scientific method through observation, measurement, and inquiry.
  • The profession of medicine – Dalton may have helped plant the seed for Mayo’s later decision to pursue medicine as a career. As a young man, Dalton was interested in medicine, but his uncle argued against it. Undaunted, Dalton studied medicine on his own and helped establish the Manchester School of Medicine. After years of persistent effort, William Mayo made medicine his vocation.

The young man was inspired by John Dalton, but he also needed to work. Good with his hands—an ability he later applied as a surgeon—William became an apprentice tailor at the age of 14. Even then, he may have continued studying at Dalton’s night classes. He became an independent tradesman at the age of 21. One can imagine him among the thousands of people who mourned John Dalton’s death on July 27, 1844. A year later, the Manchester city directory listed young Mayo as a “draper” or master tailor.

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.