Advancing the Science

Mayo Clinic Medical Science Blog – an eclectic collection of research- and research education-related stories: feature stories, mini news bites, learning opportunities, profiles and more from Mayo Clinic.

June 18, 2020

Crisis inspires innovation

By Advancing the Science contributor
Mayo Clinic has successfully navigated many challenges over our 150-plus year history, including two world wars, the 1918 influenza pandemic and the Great Depression. Our visionary leaders were able to use these inflection points of crisis to catalyze transformational change.

Mayo Clinic has an unparalleled resource to lead the response to COVID-19: our organizational values — the living legacy of the Mayo family and the Sisters of St. Francis, who established the foundation of Mayo Clinic.  

Addressing employees, who face major challenges in the COVID-19 pandemic, Gianrico Farrugia, M.D., president and CEO, pledged on behalf of institutional leaders to “ensure that every action that Mayo Clinic takes is aligned with our values and secures our ability to serve patients through our three-shield mission.”

In many ways, COVID-19 has been disruptive on a global scale. In other respects, however, it is the latest example of a timeless truth: At Mayo Clinic, crisis inspires — and accelerates — innovation and generosity.

Guided by Our Values

“Throughout our history, times of crisis have consistently called forth some of the best qualities of Mayo Clinic,” says Robert Brown, Jr., M.D., the John T. and Lillian Mathews Professor of Neuroscience and director of the Mayo Clinic Program in Professionalism and Values.

Sister Tierney Trueman, coordinator of the Mayo Clinic Values Council, describes values as a thread of continuity: “Particular circumstances vary widely over time, but the way that the people of Mayo Clinic respond to crisis, working in trust and teamwork, caring for patients and each other, has been a constant throughout the generations.”

The COVID-19 pandemic struck at a critical time in the history of Mayo Clinic. Arriving just months after the Board of Trustees approved the "cure, connect and transform" vision for the path to 2030 and beyond, the pandemic has greatly accelerated the revolution in health care that Mayo is strongly positioned to lead.

The future has arrived, and the care models of tomorrow have become the expectations and essential services of today. Guided by our values, Mayo Clinic will lead a revolution in health care in a time when it's needed most.

Today, as throughout its history, the record shows that at Mayo Clinic crisis is a catalyst.

After the tornado, Rochester, MN, 1883

Born in a storm – One could say that Mayo Clinic as we know it today was born in a storm: the 1883 tornado that devastated Rochester, Minnesota, and brought the Doctors Mayo – Dr. William Worrall Mayo and his sons, Drs. William J. and Charles H. Mayo — and the Franciscan sisters together as partners in healing. Their collaboration — sealed with a handshake — led to the founding of Saint Marys Hospital, a revolutionary innovation in methods as well as philosophy.

Saint Marys was one of the first hospitals to use the new antiseptic theory in surgical practice. In contrast to many hospitals of the time, it was neither an asylum for the poor nor a convalescent home for the well-to-do. Rather, Saint Marys Hospital set a new model in providing high-quality, compassionate care for all, regardless of race, creed or financial means. Saint Marys became the incubator of Mayo Clinic’s greatest innovation, the Mayo Clinic Model of Care, an integrated, multispecialty practice focused on the patient.

This dynamic model of care has driven Mayo’s expansion far beyond the original “clinic in a cornfield” to become the No. 1 hospital in the United States — and the world.

World War I – In the spring of 1915, Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota established the first comprehensive, academically affiliated program in postgraduate medical education, transforming the specialized training of physicians. This concept received almost immediate validation when the British ocean liner R.M.S. Lusitania was torpedoed and sank on May 7 that year. Most civilians ceased traveling to Europe for the duration of the war, and physicians who would have gone abroad for advanced training went instead to Mayo Clinic. In the mass mobilization of American society and economy to meet wartime demands, Mayo Clinic led the systemization in medical education.

Other innovative contributions to health care occurred when the United States entered the conflict in 1917.

Mayo Clinic developed concentrated, high-quality training programs for physicians and nurses who served in the military.

Louis Wilson, M.D.

Mayo Clinic’s Dr. Louis B. Wilson established pathology laboratories in close proximity to military surgical units in Europe, improving care for soldiers and strengthening the postwar linkage of pathology as data for care decision-making.

Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota co-sponsored a base hospital and mobile surgical units close to the fighting on the Western Front in France.

1918 influenza pandemic – In contrast to the chaotic and makeshift conditions in many hospitals during the influenza outbreak, the Franciscan sisters opened an isolation unit at Saint Marys Hospital. Their knowledge of illness transmission led to the high standards of cleanliness and safety that saved many lives. Mayo Clinic advocated for measures that echo the COVID-19 response today: masks, social distancing and suspension of elective procedures as a public health safety measure.

Great Depression – Following the stock market crash of 1929, patient registration fell by 40%. Of the patients who did come, 25% could not pay their bills. Despite unprecedented financial hardship, Mayo Clinic continued to support research and education, leading to innovations such as the nation’s first hospital-based blood bank, early forms of organ transplantation, and ultimately the Nobel Prize for discovery of cortisone.

As the nation’s financial system neared collapse, Mayo Clinic made every effort to protect its employees, using its own reserves to back bearer notes that staff could cash if the local banks failed. Dr. Charlie Mayo and Mayo Clinic donated funds for the construction of Mayo Civic Auditorium to provide employment and a much-needed public amenity. Dr. Will Mayo and his wife, Hattie, gave their home to Mayo Foundation as a meeting place “for the good of mankind.” They also sold the North Star, their beloved riverboat, and contributed the proceeds to pay for the care of patients in financial need. Saint Marys Hospital not only fended off bankruptcy but was able to use this time to pioneer a new form of hospital design that aligned medical research with patient care.

1939: “The Year of Greatest Crisis” – Amid the lingering effects of the Great Depression and the gathering storm of World War II, the Mayo brothers and Sister Joseph Dempsey, longtime superintendent of Saint Marys Hospital, died within four months of each other.

Thanks to careful succession planning, there was a smooth transition to new leadership. At the end of his life, Dr. Will Mayo told his associates that their natural inclination would be to become cautious and conservative after his death. In the strongest terms, he urged them to resist that inclination and be bold — particularly by expanding the Rochester airport, because he foresaw the future significance of air travel for both civilian and military transportation. As a result, the Rochester airport became one of the largest and best-equipped private airports in the country, which set the stage for Mayo Clinic’s landmark innovations in aeromedical research and as a future destination medical center.

Charles Lindbergh wears a Mayo-developed high-altitude mask to test bail-out techniques for the P-47 pursuit aircraft.

World War II – Along with sponsoring two military hospitals in the Pacific theater, Mayo Clinic conducted top-secret research on the Home Front, including development of the G-suit, high-altitude mask and other aviation discoveries. Willy Messerschmitt, the famed German aviation expert, saw a G-suit on a downed American flyer, and knowing the Germans had nothing to match it, he concluded, “The war is over.”

These collaborative innovations proved to have significant ripple effects in the postwar era, leading to the development of open-heart bypass surgery, military/civilian jet aviation and the space program. For its wartime contributions, Mayo Clinic charged the U.S. government $1 per year.

Cold War – In the 1950s and ‘60s, Mayo Clinic was a leader in planning the national health care response in the event of an atomic or nuclear attack. Mayo Clinic and the Sisters of St. Francis created an emergency hospital below the basement level of Assisi Heights, the motherhouse of the sisters’ congregation in Rochester. It had two operating rooms and more than 1,000 army cots to accommodate mass casualties. Mayo Clinic became one of the first hospitals to use the computer in anticipation of processing huge amounts of medical data for a civil disaster. As a result, Mayo Clinic scientists and physicians discovered other innovative ways to augment their practice with the use of computers.  

2001 – The attacks of 9/11 were soon followed by the worst bioterrorism event in American history: Letters containing anthrax poisoning were sent via the U.S. mail, killing five people, sickening 22 and causing widespread public anxiety. Standard testing to detect anthrax took days. In an intensive effort, Mayo Clinic developed a test that provided confirmation in less than an hour, earning national and global recognition.

Stronger together

COVID-19 specimen testing

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the importance of supporting health care to the forefront. It has identified where the health system soars and where it fails. The pandemic has accelerated Mayo’s path toward a model of care that is more digital, consumer-friendly and responsive — elements set forth in our strategic plan to cure, connect and transform health care by the year 2030. The vision is bold and ambitious, building on Mayo’s ability to revolutionize medicine to meet the changing needs of patients.  

During the pandemic, Mayo Clinic has demonstrated significant leadership on a national level, leading important efforts to improve and expand testing capabilities and conducting research for treatments and vaccines to stop the virus.

Throughout history, Mayo Clinic has answered the call of the nation — and the world — in need. Guided by our values, Mayo Clinic has inspired cures, accelerated connectivity and transformed generosity into innovation. Today, together with visionary benefactors, Mayo Clinic is prepared to advance its vision for the future.

Dr. Will Mayo always maintained a long-term perspective. His words resonate across the arc of Mayo Clinic’s history and in Mayo’s response to COVID-19: “The ills of today must not cloud the horizons of tomorrow.”


This article originally appeared in Mayo Clinic Magazine.

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Tags: About, COVID-19, Gianrico Farrugia, influenza, republished, Robert Brown

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