In 1854, Dr. William Worrall Mayo had every reason for contentment. He was married to a successful businesswoman who shared his ideals and values. He had two advanced degrees at a time when most physicians received no formal education in medicine. He had a thriving practice and was earning recognition in his adopted state for scholarship and leadership in his chosen profession. But for a man with an inborn “questing spirit,” it was time to move on.
Malaria was the cause. No one understood how mosquitoes carried the disease, which afflicted Dr. and Mrs. Mayo every year they lived in Lafayette. “Hell is a place where people have malaria,” Dr. Mayo said, and the outbreak of 1854 convinced him to relocate. Minnesota—still a territory—was his destination.
During the next 10 years, Dr. Mayo moved his family and changed his vocation several times. They lived in St. Paul, where Louise flourished in her millinery business, but Dr. Mayo struggled to find patients. They relocated to a isolated, rural farm and eventually settled in the small town of Le Sueur, Minnesota. During these years Dr. Mayo worked as a census taker, surveyor, river boat pilot, and newspaper editor—in addition to seeing patients.
In 1859, Dr. Mayo and his brother James, visiting from England, built a house in Le Sueur using plans he purchased from a mail order company. The house still stands, managed by the Minnesota Historical Society. It reflects his personality—the door to his office is five feet seven inches in height—forcing his taller patients to stoop, but just what the doctor needed for his own five-foot-four-inch stature.