Starting out in Medicine #ThrowbackThursday

This photo depicts the first use of ether as an anesthetic, which revolutionized surgery.

Although William Worrall Mayo would not become a full-time physician for several years, the timing of his arrival in New York City on August 22, 1846, was significant. Seven weeks later, on October 16, several physicians and a dentist in Boston witnessed the first public demonstration of ether anesthesia, a milestone in the evolution of surgery. W.W. Mayo and his sons would make surgery the focal point of their medical practice.

The first job that William Worrall Mayo found in America foreshadowed his career in medicine. Upon arrival in New York City, the young immigrant began work as a “chemist” at Bellevue Hospital, where he drew upon skills he had developed with John Dalton. Hospitals at the time were unsavory places, often a final stop for the poorest and sickest patients who had no family to care for them at home. Disease spread quickly amid the foul conditions. W. W. Mayo did not stay there long, which proved to be a key decision in the history of Mayo Clinic. By leaving Bellevue, he escaped a typhus epidemic that occurred a short while later, which killed 13 staff members.

W. W. Mayo worked at Bellevue Hospital when he arrived in New York City. (Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library.)

His descendants said W. W. Mayo had “a questing spirit,” a phrase that described his professional and geographic migrations in the years that followed.

In this era before railroads became dominant, inland waterways and horse-drawn wagons were the fastest means of transportation. Moving westward in the course of several journeys during 1847 to 1848, W. W. Mayo traveled along the Hudson River to Albany, New York, and the Erie Canal to Buffalo. He crossed Lake Ontario and Lake Erie by boat to Toledo, Ohio. He took the Wabash Canal and Wabash River to Lafayette, Indiana, which at the time was a bustling crossroads community on what was called “the northwest frontier.”

In Lafayette, he resumed his trade—and prospered—as a tailor. In the spring of 1849, however, he sold his share of the Hall of Fashion and announced he was going to become a doctor. Building upon his experience with John Dalton, he had attached himself to a new mentor. Elizur Deming, M.D., was more than 20 years his elder, a graduate of Williams College and an accomplished and respected physician in Lafayette and the surrounding area. William Worrall Mayo assisted Dr. Deming as a cholera epidemic broke out that summer.

This illustration suggests the wretched conditions when W. W. Mayo worked at Bellevue Hospital. (Courtesy of Granger Collection, NY.)

By autumn, the cholera crisis had passed. W. W. Mayo became a United States citizen and enrolled in Indiana Medical College in LaPorte, where Dr. Deming was on the faculty. The school enrolled about 100 students, some of whom came from the Eastern seaboard. While it was far from the Ivy League, Indiana Medical College had a microscope—20 years before Harvard added one to its curriculum, which furthered W. W. Mayo’s interest in scientific research as the basis of caring for patients. Due to his prior experience with John Dalton, Bellevue Hospital, and Dr. Deming, W. W. Mayo was excused from some of the graduation requirements and received his degree on February 14, 1850.

Also while in LaPorte, William Worrall Mayo met his future wife and life partner.

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.