Sunday, August 21, 2022

Titan Twister Ravaged Rochester and Gave Birth to Mayo Clinic

 Devastation after the Rochester, Minnesota super tornado of 1883.

It was a hot, muggy day in southeast Minnesota on August 31, 1883.  Joseph Lenard an eyewitness to events that day would later recall in the History of Olmsted County, Minnesota:

At Rochester the day had been hot with a strong southeast wind, the air was smoky and oppressive, the heavens were overcast with clouds of a dull leaden line, and there were, apparently, three strata, all moving in different directions.

In other words, conditions were ripe for violent weather. At 3:30 in the afternoon a tornado estimated as an F3 in the modern rating system touched down near Pleasant Grove, about 16 miles southwest of Rochester.  Two people were killed and hurt.  It was the first of at least three twisters spun out of waves of towering thunderheads.  The last, an F2 hit near St. Charles 15 miles east of Rochester at 8:30 that evening.  It killed one and injured 19.

But the biggest blow was reserved for the region’s principal hub.  A massive F5 storm came down at Hayfield and stayed on the ground for 25 miles until it struck Rochester then lifted back up into the clouds.  In its destructive path 40 farms were hit and mostly destroyed as were a modern steal railroad trestle and the northern third of the city where 135 homes and numerous businesses were totally smashed and 200 other buildings damaged.  Thirty-seven were killed and at least and over 200 injured badly enough to seek treatment.

Stunned survivors frantically searched through the rubble dragging out the maimed.  But there was nowhere to take them.  In the whole state of Minnesota there were only three Hospitals outside of Minneapolis and St. Paul, none anywhere near the stricken city.  An emergency clinic was hastily set up in Rommels Hall, a German social center.  Local practitioners led by Dr. David Berkman and Dr. William W. Mayo provided emergency care, but it was apparent that many of the injured would require days or weeks of care.  They needed a hospital.

In Dr. Mayo, they had just the man to start one.  Mayo was then 65 years old.  He had treated casualties at New Ulm during the Great Sioux Uprising of 1862 so was unusually adept at the treatment of traumatic injury.  He had first come to Rochester the following year as an Army surgeon for the local draft board.  He so liked the growing city that when his enlistment was up he moved his family and established a local medical practice. 

Unlike many doctors in the hinterlands, Mayo to pains to regularly travel to the East to keep abreast of the latest advances and procedures in medicine.  He was one of the first doctors in the area to use a microscope as a diagnostic tool. Both of his sons, Charles and William J. had followed his footsteps and attended medical school.  Charles had just graduated and assisted his father in the emergency clinic.  First year student William was also able to help.

Dr. William W. Mayo, center, flanked by his physician sons Charles and William J.

The senior Dr. Mayo recruited the Sisters of Saint Francis, a teaching order with no medical background to nurse his injured patients.  Mother Alfred Moes agreed with Mayo that a permanent hospital was needed in Rochester and offered her considerable skills as a fundraiser to raise a building.  Mayo became its Chief of Medicine assisted by his sons and the sisters became regular nurses.  St. Marys Hospital opened in 1889 with 12 beds.

The busy and respected Dr. Mayo served his community in many ways beyond his practice and the hospital.  At various time he served as an alderman, mayor, and school board member and served in the Minnesota Senate from 1891 to 1895.  It was said that his fingerprints could be found on every civic improvement for thirty years.

Dr. Mayo finally retired from his practice in 1892 at the age of 72 leaving his sons in charge.  They brought several other top doctors into the practice as partners.  In 1919 they incorporated as the Mayo Properties Association and established the Mayo Clinic as a not-for-profit.

Although he retired from the hospital and clinic the senior Dr. Mayo continued to make house calls to long-time private patients in his horse and buggy.  Seen here in 1904.

The elder Mayo had kept busy with science projects.  He became interested in agricultural chemistry and was developing a process for the distillation of alcohol from animal and vegetable waste.  In 1910 his arm caught in a machine crusher requiring the amputation of his hand.  Complications set in and he died on March 6, 1911 at the age of 91.

But the practice and Clinic flourished.  In 1914 it erected the first of several buildings separate from St. Mary’s with which it was still affiliated.  Every modern idea was incorporated, and several introduced like steam sterilization rooms, all-metal surgical tools and equipment, pneumatic tube system, knee operated sinks, and a state of the art HVAC system.  As a result, infection rates plummeted.  More importantly, the building was the first designed for an integrated group medical practice which encouraged cooperation and consultation among specialists.

By 1912 St. Mary's had grown from just 12 beds to this impressive building. Two years later the Mayo Clinic erected its first stand-alone building.     

The Mayo Clinic has continued to expand and has earned a world-wide reputation.  Now in addition to Rochester there are major Mayo Clinic campuses in Jacksonville, Florida and Phoenix, Arizona.  The operations of St. Mary’s Hospital, Methodist Hospital, and the clinic are now consolidated under the banner of Mayo Clinic Health System and operate more than 70 hospitals and clinics across Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Georgia.  It also operates several medical schools including the flagship Mayo Medical School in Rochester.  At its far-flung facilities it employs thousands of physicians and tens of thousands other medical professionals and support staff.


These life-size statues of the Mayo brothers sit on the top step of a conversation pit/amphitheater in a downtown Rochester park inviting visitors to pose with them.  Directly across the park are to 8 foot tall standing sculptures of the brothers in operating room scrubs that once stood in front of the Clinic entrance.  

The Clinic in Rochester, was ranked nationally by US News and World Report in the top 10 in all but one of 16 measured specialties, in the top 5 in 13 specialties, and was the #1 ranked hospital in 8 of the 12.   All very impressive.

And to think it started in the rubble of a Twister….

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