Immigrating to America #ThrowbackThursday

The founders of Mayo Clinic were immigrants and the children of immigrants who became dedicated citizens of the United States.

Many people in the founding generation of Mayo Clinic were immigrants or the children of immigrants. They brought diverse perspectives and life experiences, became loyal citizens of the United States, and created an entirely new way to care for patients and advance medical science. These people, who played a key role in our early history, arrived from Europe within a few years of each other:

William Worrall Mayo: In 1846, he departed Liverpool, England, and reached New York City.

Maria and Catherine Moes: In 1851, the future Mother Alfred and Sister Barbara left their family in Luxembourg and departed for the United States from Le Havre, France.

Advertisements encouraged many Europeans to seek a new life in America. - Courtesy of the Bostonian Society.

The Dempsey Family: Sometime in the 1850s, Patrick Dempsey and his wife Mary Sullivan Dempsey left famine-stricken Ireland. Their second child Julia was born after they settled in New York State in 1856. After her family moved to Minnesota, Julia joined the religious congregation founded by Mother Alfred Moes and became Sister Joseph Dempsey. Sister Joseph served as the superintendent of Saint Marys Hospital for nearly 50 years and became a close friend and colleague of Dr. William Worrall Mayo’s sons Drs. Will and Charlie.

These accomplishments were years in the future. At this point, it is important to remember that simply getting to America was an achievement unto itself. The word “travel” is associated with “travail,” which connotes struggle and strife. Many passengers on the Atlantic crossing agreed with British writer Samuel Johnson, who said, “Being in a ship is being in jail, with a chance of being drowned.”

Although early steamships were crossing the Atlantic in the 1840s and '50s, they carried only first-class passengers. William Worrall Mayo and the Moes sisters came from middle-class backgrounds, but they traveled in steerage on sailing ships of the type that had been in service, with some modifications, since the first Europeans arrived in the New World. The Dempseys, escaping poverty and starvation in the Irish Potato Famine, probably traveled in the type of vessel whose wretched conditions gave rise to the nickname “coffin ship.”

Crossing the Atlantic Ocean was a harrowing experience. (Photo courtesy of Collection of Maggie Land Blanck.)

On a typical voyage, 200 or more steerage passengers were crammed into bunks in dark, fetid spaces below the main deck for a voyage that could last from several weeks to three months. Poor sanitation and ventilation made disease rampant.

Steerage passengers had to prepare their own food, using supplies that often were spoiled, in a tiny cooking galley. On October 15, 1851, the “New-York Daily Times” published a letter from a physician who had made the Atlantic crossing several times:

“Many a poor woman with her children can get but one meal done, and sometimes, they get nothing warm done for days and nights when a gale of wind is blowing and the sea is mountains' high and breaking over the ship in all directions.”

Some ships never made it to port, as recorded in a melancholy document called, “The Atlantic Ferry.” Entries include, “wrecked in fog . . . foundered . . . burned . . . collision . . . never heard from.”

Little wonder that many immigrants, upon arrival, embraced their new homes and were eager for fresh starts. In becoming a citizen of the United States, William Worrall Mayo signed a document pledging “to renounce forever allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereign, whatever . . . .”

As their ships landed in the New York Harbor, William Worrall Mayo, the Moes sisters, and the Dempsey family began journeys in America that ultimately led them to Rochester, Minnesota—a town that did not yet exist on any map but which they helped make known throughout the world.

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.