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W. Bruce Fye Center For the History of Medicine: Curators' Favorites

A Few of Our Favorite Things

This exhibit was inspired by the collections of the two historical units of the Mayo Clinic Libraries in Minnesota. The Fye Center for the History of Medicine collects historical records and artifacts relating to Mayo Clinic and maintains the Historical Suite containing the Mayo brothers’ offices, while the Fye History of Medicine Library houses antiquarian published materials and a few special collections relating to the general history of medicine and science. The staff of both units function as a team to care for our historical materials and make them available for research, exhibits, presentations, films, and publications. Due to the broad scope of our collections we see a huge variety of fascinating things in diverse formats. 

Usually an exhibit is based on a theme for which items are chosen as illustrations, but for every object that makes it to a display case there are many more that remain in storage, never seen by anyone but our staff. For this exhibit each staff member was asked to choose and describe a few of their favorites. 

Some observations about our selections:

  • Most of the choices are items that have never been displayed.
  • Archival choices are mostly two-dimensional documents and photographs rather than artifacts. This reflects the actual composition of our collections, which contain a much larger percentage of two-dimensional materials.
  • Archival selections are not concentrated on Mayo’s founding era, which is what most people think of when contemplating Mayo history. While our collections for that time period are strong, our goal is to also collect for future research.  We encourage all Mayo departments and current employees to regard what they do as being of historical interest and to consider donating materials to the Archives.
  • The History of Medicine Library choices reflect a much broader collection content—topically and chronologically—than most Mayo staff would assume is available in Rochester. In fact, the collection contains books dating back to 1479 and includes published material in 25 languages.

Lorkel, c. 1974

This two-piece artifact made of orange plastic and rubber was donated to the Archives with the following note by a Mayo Clinic neurologist who retired in 2014:

"This is a 'lorkel,' a snorkel for those with laryngectomies who loved to snorkel.  It was invented circa 1974 by Bob Keith, a speech pathologist who loved to SCUBA and who dealt with these folks.  [Most] put this in their mouth [and] breathed through the nose; there was a special mask with fitting for [it]..."

It is a staff favorite because it represents the best spirit of Mayo innovation in support of the needs of the patient.  Mr. Keith invented the lorkel to serve a very specialized group, using his own initiative and based on his own experiences.

The President with Polio, 1934

This candid photograph of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (center) with Dr. William J. “Will” Mayo (right) and Dr. Charles H. “Charlie” Mayo (left) was taken during the president’s visit to Rochester and the Mayo Clinic on August 8, 1934. What makes this picture interesting is the prominent visibility of Roosevelt’s leg braces; he was diagnosed with polio in 1921, and the disease paralyzed his legs. Roosevelt’s dependence on braces, canes, ramps, and wheelchairs was largely hidden from the public to maintain confidence during the nation’s struggles through the Great Depression and World War II. The press respectfully refrained from photographing or filming the president while he “walked”, which he did by leaning against a cane, an escort’s arm, or a handrail, then swinging his legs forward, keeping himself upright by sheer arm strength and balance.

A ceremony at Soldiers Field to honor Dr. Will and Dr. Charlie was attended by approximately 75,000 people and broadcast to the nation via radio. In his speech the president proclaimed that “Medicine has taught us how important it is to look beyond the result to the cause, not only of human sickness, but of those social disorders out of which individual difficulties necessarily arise.”  

This photograph taken during the Soldiers Field ceremony demonstrates how well the president’s disability was hidden from the public. The grandstand, which was built with a ramp rather than stairs, featured a podium with discreet handles that allowed the president to hold himself upright during his speech.  

It is not known whether the president or his family ever discussed his disability with the Mayo brothers or other Mayo Clinic staff. 

Folio CCIII verso, from Liber Chronicarum (Book of Chronicles, or Nuremberg Chronicle) by Hartmann Schedel

There are old books, and then there are incunabula. Incunabula are books or pamphlets printed in Europe prior to 1500, before widespread access to a printing press. The Liber Chronicarum is considered a landmark incunabulum. It was written by Hartmann Schedel, a medical doctor and humanist, and printed by Anton Koberger, a printer and publisher, in 1493 while they were both living in Nuremberg. Koberger was also the godfather of Albrecht Dürer, one of the most famous printers in history. The book was written in Latin, but also had a German edition. It was commissioned as a chronicle of Christian world history prior to 1493; however, it is best known for its graphic design, woodcuts, and city descriptions. 

The W. Bruce Fye History of Medicine Library has an uncolored edition in Latin, purchased in 1966. This folio leaf is from another edition and has been hand colored. It includes a depiction of John Mesue, a physician, examining a specimen in a bottle as well as sun and moon woodcuts that strongly resemble work attributed to Dürer. It shows the depth and breadth of knowledge made available through the Mayo libraries and historical units.  It is also a fantastic piece of art and history that should be displayed at least once. 


Correspondence -- Dr. William J. Mayo and Sister Mary Joseph Dempsey, 1937 [scroll through gallery]

Sister Joseph Dempsey (1856-1939) grew up in rural Rochester and joined the Sisters of Saint Francis of the Third Order Regular of the Congregation of Our Lady of Lourdes in 1878, one year after the founding of the congregation by Mother Alfred Moes. Sister Joseph was administrator of Saint Marys Hospital from 1892 to 1939 and served as surgical first assistant to Dr. William J. Mayo from 1890-1915. At the time of Sister Joseph’s death in March 1939, Dr. Will noted “of all the splendid surgical assistants I have had, she easily ranks first.”

The deep respect and fondness between Sister Joseph and Dr. Will is illustrated in these letters and postcards. In 1937 Dr. Will provided funds as a gift for Sister Joseph’s dream trip to Rome. Traveling with Sister Domitilla to Italy, Switzerland and France, a highlight for the Sisters was visiting the Vatican and receiving a blessing by Pope Pius XI.

My dear friends,

Everlasting thanks for this great pleasure. We toured this city today and thought many times of the one who made it possible for us. No one has been ill so everything is enjoyable.

With much love, Sister Mary Joseph

-- Postcard to Dr. Will and Mrs. Mayo, September,1937

Dear Dr. W. J. Mayo,

We are in the holy city of Rome.  We pray daily for the one who made it possible for us to have this pleasure.  May God ever bless you and yours.

Your friend, Sister Mary Joseph

~ Postcard to Dr. Will, September,1937 


The Doctors Mayo – 4 books translated to Burmese, Chinese, Kannada, and Malayalam [scroll through gallery]

The Doctors Mayo, written by Helen Clapesattle, was first published in 1941. It is the authoritative biography of Dr. William Worrall Mayo, his sons, Drs. Charlie and Will Mayo, and the development of Mayo Clinic. Since its publication, it has been translated into nearly a dozen languages. These copies include Burmese, Chinese, Kannada (southern India) and Malayalam (southwest India) translations. They were produced by local publishers between 1951 and 1961 with runs of 2,000 copies each. 

These titles represent Mayo Clinic’s longstanding values to prioritize mutual respect, encouragement of innovation, and stewardship of knowledge, as well as offering inspiration to healthcare providers on an international scale. Our shared commitment to our values is a critical component that makes Mayo Clinic a leader in health care and health care education.

Burmese translation, undated

Chinese translation, 1961

Inside page of Chinese translation with illustration of the Mayo Clinic Board of Governor's room in the Plummer Building

Kannada translation, 1958 (Southern India)

Malayalam translation, 1955 (Southwest India)

The "Mayo Clinic Diet"

One consequence of the Mayo Clinic’s fame was that businesses and individuals with no connection to Mayo tried to take advantage of its stellar reputation. In the time before mass communication and the internet, the clinic frequently received letters asking for confirmation of claims--that a doctor had trained or worked at Mayo, for example, or questions about supposedly Mayo-endorsed products from medicines to ladies’ corsets. It should come as no surprise that at some point a “Mayo Clinic Diet” would appear and that the public would want to follow it. The Archives has large numbers of letters, mostly from the 1960s and 1970s, from people either requesting a copy of the Diet or asking if the copy they had received from someone they knew was genuine. In fact, there was not an official Mayo Clinic Diet until a book with that title, authored by a Mayo consultant, was published in 2010.  

1965 letter with mimeographed diet instructions

This letter from Quebec, Canada, and copy of a “Mayo Clinic Diet” were received in 1965. Several versions with variable instructions can be found in the Diet Collection. In this case the ladies were not fazed by the direction to “Eat until you are stuffed and then force yourself to eat some more” (number 7), but were very concerned about how to categorize the color of vegetables at dinner (number III).

Diet request letters, excerpts, 1965

These excerpts show the international scope of both Mayo’s reputation and the supposed “Diet’s” influence. The New York example also illustrates the sometimes dubious chain of authority by which versions of the “Diet” were spread.

Historical Parallels -- Vaccines [scroll through gallery]

In the early 1950s, the poliovirus caused over 15,000 cases of paralysis each year, oftentimes in children. In 1952, the polio epidemic in the United States became the worst outbreak in the nation’s history. The introduction of the polio vaccine in 1955 brought hope for the eradication of the disease. An April 5, 1955 Mayovox article describes the national excitement over the first polio vaccines being delivered from a factory in Michigan to hospitals around the country, including Mayo Clinic. 

In December of 2019, the first COVID-19 case was identified and swiftly spread worldwide, leading to the current ongoing pandemic. The first COVID-19 vaccine became available in December of 2020.  News channels broadcast live scenes of UPS and FedEx trucks leaving the Pfizer facility in Michigan to begin the delivery of vaccines across the country. On December 17, 2020, the Mayo Clinic News Center featured a video showing the delivery of the COVID-19 vaccine to the Rochester campus.

Mayo Clinic employee Mark Braatas gets his first polio shot from Dr. Donald Mathieson on January 26, 1957.

Kniely Maxwell is the first Mayo Clinic employee to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at Mayo Clinic Florida on December 17, 2020.

By 1956, Mayo Clinic had administered 12,586 total polio vaccinations, prompting Dr. Thomas Magath to remark, “It reminded me of 1924 when Dr. Sanford and I vaccinated 15,000 people against smallpox.” Although the smallpox, polio and COVID-19 vaccines were all met with initial excitement, health care workers from each era faced the same difficulties in convincing the population to get vaccinated. General apathy, misinformation, and politics plague vaccination efforts. A July 1924 notice in The Clinic Bulletin blames the continued spread of smallpox on widespread neglect of vaccination.

Murphy Button, c. 1890s

In the early 1890s, surgeons were still trying to find a safe and effective method for intestinal anastomosis. Dr. John B. Murphy, an innovative and prominent Chicago surgeon, devised a simple device that became known as the Murphy button. Each half of the button was sewn to an intestinal opening and then joined together by the button’s stems.  As the tissue healed, the button was released to be passed from the body. The Mayo brothers, frequent visitors to Dr. Murphy’s operating room, obtained one of the buttons during a visit to Chicago. In 1893, they published an article describing its successful use in surgery on an elderly patient.

Shown here is the Murphy button used by Dr. Charles H. Mayo during surgery on a five-month old baby with an intestinal knot.  

When the baby was sent home, Sister Mary Joseph went with the family to help care for him and later sent this thoughtful postcard to the baby’s mother. The baby grew to adulthood, and in 2020 his son donated this Murphy button and postcard to the Mayo Clinic archives.

Illustration showing the components of the Murphy button and its use in surgical anastomosis of the intestine. (Kaula, William J. “Teaching watercolor of the components of and final placement of Murphy’s button for intestinal surgical anastomosis,” OnView: Digital Collections & Exhibits, accessed September 1, 2021,

Swift Bedspecs, c. 1950s

Swift Bedspecs Prismatic Reclining Reading Glasses allowed patients to read while lying in bed. The Mayo Clinic Hospital Library had numerous pairs for loan. This pair on display is labeled #66. Advertised as a “new seeing pleasure for your relaxing hours,” in a hospital setting they greatly benefited patients who wanted to read but were unable to sit upright.

Patient wearing Swift Bedspecs

This photograph shows a patient using a pair that were brought to him by hospital librarian Ruth Tews.

Wax Model #1302, Venipuncture

For six decades, from 1924 to 1983, Mayo Clinic produced large numbers of medical moulages, lifelike wax models formed from molds to demonstrate pathological changes in the body. The wax models were educational tools used in exhibits at major medical meetings to depict the clinic's medical and surgical techniques and to illustrate the signs, symptoms, and treatments of conditions seen at Mayo.

This model is part of a series that demonstrated venipuncture techniques. Mayo Medical Museum staff created the models to be exhibited at the 1944 American Medical Association meeting in Chicago. It was chosen for the current exhibit because of its lifelike realism, the image of one hand grasping another which reminds the viewer of the partnership between W.W. Mayo and Mother Alfred, and the idea of helping one another through the most difficult times.

Nobel Prize Medal Presentation Box, 1950

In the 1940s, Mayo Clinic researchers Dr. Edward C. Kendall (who had previously isolated thyroxine) and Dr. Philip S. Hench (a specialist in arthritic disease) were working to isolate adrenal cortex hormones and develop a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. The first patients were treated with Compound E in 1948 and the results were considered miraculous: swollen joints returned to their normal size, and patients who suffered from debilitating pain and immobility were once more able to climb stairs and go shopping. Hench renamed the compound “cortisone”, short for “corticosterone”. In 1950, Kendall, Hench, and Polish-Swiss chemist Tadeusz Reichstein (whose team had independently investigated and isolated adrenal hormones) were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. Within a few years, however, the negative side effects of high-dose, long-term treatment made it clear that cortisone was not a miracle drug after all. Today, corticosteroids are used in a more targeted and limited way to relieve pain and inflammation caused by a variety of medical conditions.

In this photograph of the 1950 ceremony, King Gustaf VI Adolf of Sweden (left) presents Dr. Edward C. Kendall (right) with the Nobel Prize medal, held in the box on display. In contrast to the ceremony’s pageantry and the gold medal the box held, the relative simplicity and practicality of the presentation box speak to the toil and perseverance behind the prize. In 1951, Dr. Philip S. Hench’s reminiscences of his time in Stockholm were published in Proceedings of the Staff Meetings of the Mayo Clinic (Vol. 26, 417-437). Of the moment of Dr. Kendall’s award, he recalled: “I have not found out what the King said to Dr. Kendall or vice versa.  With a twinkle in his eye, Dr. Kendall told me: ‘That’s a secret.’  But I suspect that King Gustaf Adolf asked Dr. Kendall: ‘How do you pronounce 17-hydroxy-11-dehydrocorticosterone?’”

Lamp Given to Nursing Students

During the Capping and Candle Lighting Ceremony nursing students receive their caps and lamps after a probationary period, signifying acceptance by the school and readiness to begin hospital training. The lamp is a tribute to Florence Nightingale and has come to symbolize care in nursing. The symbol of the lamp marks the student’s transition from a position of study to one of service – lighting the way into the future in nursing.

Methodist-Kahler School of Nursing Lamp Lighting Ceremony, c. 1950s. The nurse on the far left represents Florence Nightingale.

Mayo Clinic Women's Club Cookbook, 1968 [cover illustration by John W. Desley] [scroll through gallery]

The Mayo Clinic Women’s Club was founded in 1938 to meet “the need for clubrooms and recreational facilities for the women of both the professional and non-professional staffs” of the Clinic. 87 women attended an introductory meeting in October with election of officers. Planning activities moved quickly and by the end of 1938 there were 466 charter members.

The club’s initial work focused on plans for the use of the former home of early Mayo surgeon Dr. E. Starr Judd at 705 2nd St. SW (now the Gift of Life Transplant House). The clubhouse opened in December 1938 and remained home to the Women’s Club until 1970. With a resident manager and service staff, it offered an array of amenities to members including dining room meals, a library collection, a darkroom, a sewing room, bicycles to borrow, and a guest room for short-term stays for female employees new to Rochester.

A welcome brochure from 1948 extols the possibilities: 

Come up at noontime for a good substantial lunch.  Meet old friends, make new ones.  Play a bit of ping pong or pool.  Read, listen to the radio…or just relax!

During the heyday of the Women's Club in the 1950s there were over 1,100 current employees and retiree members. The club sponsored hundreds of activities and opportunities for fun – sports teams, choral groups, lectures, dances, trail rides, fashion shows, art workshops, picnics, bazaars, volunteering, theatre trips, group vacations and more. In later decades, interest in the club waned among younger women employees as more inclusive Human Resources-sponsored activities developed for all employees and families.

The Mayo Clinic Women’s Club transitioned to the Mayo Friendship Club in 1990 and held its final gathering in December 2009.


This exhibit was designed and curated by the staff of The W. Bruce Fye Center for the History of Medicine and the History of Medicine Library. All images and artifacts are from the Fye Center or Library unless otherwise stated.

To learn more about Mayo Clinic history, heritage and the history of medicine, visit:

List of Current and Past Exhibits