Tradition & Heritage Timeline Artifacts  
Dr. Plummer and other Mayo Clinic Colleagues
Dr. Henry Plummer
Dr. Henry Plummer

Impressing Dr. Will
In 1901, the Mayo brothers received a call for a consultation with Dr. Albert Plummer of Racine, Minn. When Dr. Will Mayo arrived, Dr. Plummer was sick in bed with a cold and unable to accompany Dr. Will to see the patient. Instead, he sent his son, Henry, who was in practice with him.

The young man took his microscope along on the trip with Dr. Will and made a positive first impression with his knowledge of the properties of blood. Dr. Will had previously seen Henry at Saint Marys Hospital as he spent several summer vacations there. However, this consultation to see a patient with leukemia gave Dr. Will his first opportunity to become acquainted with the young Dr. Plummer.

Dr. Plummer took a blood sample from the patient, and from a hired hand, and then showed Dr. Will the difference between the two samples under the microscope. Upon arriving home, Dr. Will commented to his brother, Dr. Charlie, "That son of Dr. Plummer's is an extraordinary young man. I believe we ought to get him up here to take charge of our laboratories; he would do us a lot of good." Just weeks later, Dr. Plummer joined the Mayo practice. Dr. Will Mayo would later comment that the hiring of Henry Plummer was the best day's work he ever did for the clinic.

A True Innovator
Dr. Henry Stanley Plummer received his M.D. degree from Northwestern University in Chicago in 1898. After medical school graduation, Dr. Plummer helped his father visit patients, much as the Mayo brothers helped their father. For night calls, he used a simple, lever-activated rope system outside his bedroom window that released oats in the barn, allowing his horse to feed before he went out. For camping, he prepared a telephone outfit to tap rural lines and connected it to a barbed wire fence near camp, so he could receive emergency calls.

Shortly after joining the Mayo practice in 1901, Dr. Plummer tried, with some success, to circulate correspondence mechanically between offices Mayo rented in downtown Rochester. The system featured a cable-carrier system similar to those in department stores of that era. Unfortunately, dampness swelled the cotton lines and the carrier baskets failed to complete the trip between offices.

Also early in his career at Mayo, Dr. Plummer directed the development of Mayo's clinical laboratories and personally helped establish the X-ray laboratory. Dr. Plummer was the first to understand and operate an X-ray machine at Mayo. Dr. Will credited Dr. Plummer as "a pioneer in the development of X-ray diagnosis and therapy." To the day of his death, Dr. Plummer carried the scars of X-ray burns on his hands.

Dr. Plummer's foresight in developing a simple, easily retrievable medical record system in 1907 produced a unique research archive. As a result, numerous studies have advanced medical knowledge and continue to do so today.

A Genius Personality
Dr. Henry Plummer had the mark of a classic genius: one who focuses on the concept and ignores the mundane. His ability to concentrate was awe-inspiring, as was his reputation for absentmindedness. When colleagues asked Dr. Plummer a question, they often got no reply -- until days later, when he would suddenly give as thorough an answer as if he had just heard the question.

One colleague observed that his absentmindedness may have been a self-defense mechanism in order to concentrate. Others recall having a very active conversation with him on some obtuse subject, and suddenly, without warning, he would get up and leave. Not even days, but months later, he would pick up the conversation as if it had just finished.

According to Dr. Will Mayo: "It was characteristic of him when he set his mind on a special subject, he would sacrifice all other interests to it, go into what might be called a scientific trance ... and sooner or later, by various types of experiments and work, and with the cooperation of others whom he generously gave credit, he emerged with something that meant progress."

Architect of Modern Medicine
Dr. Henry Plummer did much to shape modern medicine. He was among the first to recognize that the old system of record keeping -- ledger books -- was intolerably cumbersome. Dr. Plummer invented the modern dossier record system which quickly replaced the ledger system and became the model for medical records worldwide. Each patient is registered and assigned a clinic number. Each patient also has a special envelope -- filed by clinic number -- in which all patient history is placed. That way, no matter how many visits, a full record is maintained.

Dr. Plummer also recognized the need for specially designed facilities to deliver Dr. Will's vision of an integrated, coordinated group practice where physicians and associates worked together cooperatively and productively. His primary goal was to bring into reality Dr. Will's idea of a patient being treated as a whole. The result was the first Mayo Clinic building, the 1914 Building, in which all clinical medicine departments, laboratories, workshops, editorial services, and the business office were brought together under one roof.

Each floor was connected with the main file desk by a constantly moving conveyor belt so that patient files could be accessed within minutes. Dr. Plummer also invented a new signaling system for monitoring activity in the exam rooms and a telegraph ticker that assigned specific calls to each physician. When told by telephone company staff that his idea of a system that would enable the doctors to talk directly to each other, to the operator or to an outside person was impossible, he asked to speak to the engineer and convinced him that it could be done. The first Mayo building contained many features that remain central to patient care at Mayo, and it influenced the design of future buildings at Mayo Clinic.

In the late 1920s, when Dr. Plummer designed the building that now bears his name, he incorporated many of the features that he had used in the 1914 Building, as well as several new ones. These included:

  • Multiple light systems
  • Telephone communications
  • In-house telegraphy
  • Cross-indexed patient records
  • A power plant
  • Subways
  • Pneumatic tube delivery system

The core principles created by Dr. Plummer in implementing Dr. Will's vision are still true today. Mayo now boasts an electronic medical record built on the foundation created by Dr. Plummer and utilizes the latest technologies in providing medical care.

Russell Drake Maud Mellish Wilson
Dr. Plummer bas relief on Plummer Building
Dr. Plummer bas relief on Plummer Building
Dr. Plummer
Dr. Plummer
Dr. Plummer
Dr. Plummer
Pneumatic tube system
Pneumatic tube system

Find Mayo Clinic on

Terms of Use and Information Applicable to this Site
Copyright ©2001-2015 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. All Rights Reserved.