Tradition & Heritage Timeline Artifacts  
The Early Years -- Learning Medicine Like Boys on a Farm
William J. Mayo
An Early Learning Experience

When Will Mayo was 16 years old, one of his father's patients died from a complicated ailment, and the doctor decided on a postmortem to solve the puzzle. Father and son left home late in the evening on a stormy night to perform an autopsy. They came to the abandoned hotel where the patient had once lived as a caretaker.

The windows of the crumbling building rattled. Dust stood thick in the corners. In a small room off the clerk's desk lay the body of the caretaker on a sagging iron bed. On a table beside the bed stood a kerosene lamp, its oil burned low. Dr. Mayo quickly lit it.

Paying no more attention to his son, he started his examination. Two or three times the lamp was almost blown out. Occasionally the doctor spoke softly, explaining what he was doing. After an hour, it was time to go on to another patient's home.

"Will, you stay here and clean up everything," he said. "Sew up the incisions and then tuck the sheet around the corpse. When you finish, go right home. Take the specimens."

Will Mayo stood alone beside the pale cadaver. He shivered despite his efforts to control himself. For a moment, panic gripped the future great physician. But something held him to the spot. His father had instructed him to clean up things. In a minute he was making rapid, if unskilled, stitches to close the incisions.

"I'm about as proud of the fact that I walked out, instead of ran, as of anything else I ever made myself do," Dr. Will said years later in telling of the experience.

"We Came Along in Medicine ..." Dr. Will Writes Home from Medical School
Medicine bag
Medicine bag
William J. Mayo
William J. Mayo --
Medical student

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.