On Sunday, May 12, 1940, Americans awoke to a frightening new chapter in the spreading world war. Two days earlier, the Germans had invaded Luxembourg, Belgium, and Holland. Now they were surging toward Paris. In London, the appeasement-minded government of Neville Chamberlain collapsed, as the Nazi blitzkrieg routed Allied armies on the continent.
In the United States, strident voices – including Minnesota native Charles Lindbergh – declared that the unfolding disaster was none of America’s business, that there was no hope for the Western democracies.
But May 12 was also Mother’s Day, and in New York City, a 73-year old widow, “a small, slender woman in a simple black dress, her silver hair parted softly above brown eyes,” walked toward a microphone at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Edith Graham Mayo had been named American Mother of the Year by the Golden Rule Foundation, and she was using radio – the most powerful form of mass communication at the time – to reach a national audience.
Reflecting the importance of the occasion, she was introduced by Sara Delano Roosevelt, mother of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Amid the din of warmongers and defeatists, she spoke softly, turning attention away from herself and urging her listeners to reach out in humanitarian aid:
“… today there are untold myriads of mothers in Europe and Asia, as well as in impoverished homes of our own land, who are praying not for flowers but for flour, not for candies but for bread, not for greeting cards and telegrams but for medicine, sympathy and the necessities of life. If I know anything about the real heart of motherhood, I do not know of any way in which we could more appropriately honor our mothers than by doing for war orphans, widowed mothers and victims of military aggression in other lands, that which we would like to have done for our own if conditions were reversed … Let us all help in this great work.”
The patriotic, international and humanitarian values that Edith Mayo – “Mrs. Charlie” – expressed were emblematic of Mayo Clinic. They would undergo stern trials in the years to come.
In 1940, Mayo Clinic was in transition, having survived the Great Depression and the deaths of many of its founders and pioneers – both Mayo brothers, Sister Joseph Dempsey, Dr. Henry Plummer, and Maud Mellish Wilson, among others. A new generation was assuming leadership, even as the most violent war in history was beginning.
“The greatest generation” is a phrase used by award-winning journalist Tom Brokaw, a member of the Mayo Clinic Board of Trustees, and that description certainly applies to the men and women of Mayo Clinic during World War II. They served in all branches of the military, in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of war. On the Home Front, the diminished staff provided care to record numbers of patients, while conducting top-secret aero-medical research that helped win the war and launch post-war jet aviation and the space program.