Historians Reflect on Mayo Brothers’ Role During World War I #ThrowbackThursday

Sunday marked 100 years since the end of World War I. ABC 6 Newsshares how Olmsted County played a role during this time.

In the early 1900s, Olmsted County had a growing population. The Mayo brothers had built a hospital in 1914 to conduct their practice in downtown Rochester, which was instrumental in the growth of the city. But as the year went on, tensions were on the rise in Europe following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. This assassination triggered a chain of events for several yearsthe sinking of Lusitania and the Zimmerman Telegram brought the United States into the mix. “We were dead set on staying out of European theaters of war, but unfortunately with the Zimmerman telegram and sinking of our cargo ships during the war, our president had to declare war against Germany,” said Daniel Nowakowski of the History Center of Olmsted County. In May of 1917, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Selective Service Act. The first people drafted were unmarried men, “Luckily, most of the men from Minnesota and all over the state of Minnesota went down to Fort Dodge. The other one was Fort Snelling up in the Twin Cities,” stated Nowakowski.

Historians add that the men who were left behind were instructed to train new recruits. While the other men went off to war, the Mayo brothers were both called to service on the medical front. “The two Mayo brothers, Dr. William Mayo and Dr. Charles Mayo, were on the staff of the U.S. surgeon general, so they became brigadier generals in the U.S. Army Medical Reserve Corp. They were serving as advisors to the surgeon general helping to organize military medical preparedness,” said Matt Dacy of Mayo Clinic's Heritage Museum. Nowakowski adds that one of the Mayo brothers would stay at Mayo Clinic while the other would go to Washington. Their medical reputation preceded them, allowing them to pitch an idea, “One of the ideas that Will pitched around was to create base hospitals, and they suggested that the Mayos handle it. But Will turned it down, maybe suggesting with the University of Minnesota to partner with them, and the University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic both partnered to form Base Hospital 26, which is one of the first base hospitals to be sent over to the European theater from America.”

History shows that the Mayo brothers provided significant financial resources along with the University of Minnesota to get Base Hospital 26 off the ground. The staff trained in Georgia, where they were taught how to handle war wounds before they left for France. But they had a few problems before they even began, “Now, that’s where a lot of base hospitals were also developed because it was far enough from the front lines but close enough so people who just got attacked on the front lines could be quickly rushed for treatment because they would get literally people just off the front lines who needed treatment right away, and when the base hospital was being developed, they literally had nothing, like they got there, and there was nothing there.”

On their first day, the nurses and doctors saw a little under 400 patients, with surgeons working 16-hour day shifts with 4-hour breaks in between treating patients with only 2 hospital beds. But as time went on, the nurses and doctors progressed with treating the wounded soldiers. It wasn't until November 11, 1918, that a ceasefire was declared, which would pave the way for peace talks. “After the war, the Mayos wished to honor the idea of peace and goodwill. On November 11, 1918, Armistice Day, the war ended. Dr. Mayo instantly began sending telegrams to his colleagues in German: 'Now, the peace has returned. Let us restore and renew our professional bonds.' Now, the federal government got wind of this, and his telegrams going to Germany, and a uniformed officer came to Dr. Mayo’s office. 'You're communicating with the enemy, and this is wrong.' Dr. Mayo said, 'Stop right there. The war is over. There can be no ranker now.' So, here are the Mayos being very patriotic, but then the moment the war ended, they were the first to reach out with goodwill to former enemies.”
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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.