The Tornado that created the Mayo Clinic

The original Mayo Clinic, formally St. Mary's Hospital. The picture was taken in 1924, 5 years after the Mayo Clinic opened. This building was torn down in 1986.

The original Mayo Clinic, formally St. Mary’s Hospital. The picture was taken in 1924, 5 years after the Mayo Clinic opened. This building was torn down in 1986.

Oppressive heat, dense air and a quiet stillness of life filled the citizens of Rochester, Minnesota with dread during the day of August 21, 1883. Conditions in town had turned for the worse by the evening when the skies had turned to black and sudden gale force winds whipped across the land. These are all the markings of an impending tornado. A small tornado formed in another area of Minnesota earlier in the day, but it was a much larger tornado that touched down at 6:30 P.M. that was the cause of the most concern as it was moving northeast, directly towards Rochester. At a mile wide, this F5 tornado was heard well before it even hit the town as it destroyed farms, homes and trains in warning of what was to come.

The aftermath in Rochester was described as a scene of horror as one-third of the town was destroyed. Most every building in northern Rochester was eradicated, the land was littered with farm animals blown around by the storm, every headstone in the town cemetery was blown over and more than 135 homes were demolished from the entire town. A total number of homes that were destroyed was never recorded but the estimated number is given at well over 200 within the 25 mile wide path of destruction the tornado left behind. In all, casualties in the town were counted roughly at 40 and more than 200 people suffered from mild to severe injuries.

With no immediate hospital, the citizens transformed the town dance hall into a makeshift emergency room and hospital to attend to those who were suffering from their wounds. In 1883, the entire state of Minnesota only had 3 hospitals, and since none of these were located near Rochester, it was imperative that the local doctor, William Worrall (W.W.) Mayo aid all those in need. With the help from his two sons, Charles and William Mayo, the three doctors were successful in their endeavor to save as many lives as possible.

The aftermath in Rochester, MN as a result of an F5 tornado

The aftermath in Rochester, MN as a result of an F5 tornado

Along with these doctors, Mother Alfred Moes of the Sisters of St. Francis was also assisting with the nursing of patients but her contribution would far exceed her ability to nurse. Mother Alfred had approached W.W. Mayo about opening a clinic but he had objected as he believed the town was too small for a hospital of the size and cost proposed to be sustainable. Not taking no for an answer, Mother Alfred and the Sisters of St. Francis patiently raised enough money over the course of 5 years to build the hospital that was so desperately needed. The determination of the Sisters earned the respect from Mayo and he was finally convinced to join as the head doctor of what was to become St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester, MN. With the hospital’s construction completed in 1889, St. Mary’s Hospital opened their doors with only 3 doctors working around the clock, Mayo and his two sons. Due to the Episcopalian faith of the Mayos and the Roman Catholic Sisters of St. Francis, no other doctors would accept a position working for the hospital. The association of the two denominations not only affected the hospital during its infancy, it also created considerable strife within the community which is thought to be the reason why no other doctors wanted a position working in the new, state-of-the-art facility.

The 3 Mayo doctors had finally convinced Dr. Augustus Stinchfield to join the practice as a partner in 1892, which was the first step in expanding the hospital. Dr. Stinchfield joined 3 years after the hospital opened allowing W.W. Mayo to finally retire at the age of 73. The practice was soon able to grow to add 5 more partners, courtesy of the connections that Dr. Stinchfield was affiliated with, contributing to the overall productivity and progress that was necessary to expand a once small, family practice.

Finally in 1919, the partners who were still practicing in the private enterprise founded the Mayo Properties Association and formed the non-for-profit Mayo Clinic. Unfortunately, W.W. Mayo never saw the unveiling of the clinic named in his honor as he had passed away 8 years before in 1911. At the age of 90 in 1910, Mayo had crushed his arm and hand in a machine that extracted the waste from animals and vegetables to produce alcohol, this resulted in the eventual amputation of the entire arm. The incident presented Mayo with a number of difficulties and complications, even with the removal of his arm, he passed away on March 6, 1911.

Charlotte