March 1917: The “Lost Oration” #ThrowbackThursday

These glasses and books belonged to Charles Mayo, M.D., and can be seen in the Mayo Clinic archive.

Intense changes roiled the world in March 1917. World War I had been underway for more than 2½ years. In Russia, the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty collapsed at the start of what became an unfolding revolution and civil war. The U.S. was technically neutral, but German attacks on American shipping would lead President Woodrow Wilson and Congress to declare war against Germany and its allies the next month.

Mayo Clinic was on a precipice of its own.

For several years, the Mayo brothers had seen the need to create formal programs in advanced education for physicians. At the time, this field was essentially unregulated. Practitioners—after only a few weeks of “study”—could frame a certificate and claim to be a “specialist.”

The Minnesota State Capitol Building as it looked in the 1910s.

In response, William J. Mayo, M.D., and Charles Mayo, M.D., took a series of steps that created a separate entity called the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. Starting in June 1915, in affiliation with the Graduate School of the University of Minnesota, the foundation provided academically sound training in a range of specialties. As a sign of their commitment, the brothers gave $1.5 million (equivalent to more than $36 million today) to fund the program.

To the brothers’ dismay, the affiliation sparked a storm of protest. Critics included county medical societies and individual physicians throughout the state. Perhaps the idea was too new and innovative. Possibly the critics could not fathom the Mayos’ spirit of altruism. Rhetoric became heated: “Barbarians at the gates” and “a phantom gift and a trial marriage” were some of the printable charges. Biographer Helen Clapesattle described “the personal spite and malice, the disgraceful misrepresentation and abuse.”

Although the program flourished from the start, attacks continued, and, in early 1917, a bill was introduced into the Minnesota State Legislature. It sought to dissolve the affiliation between Mayo and the university.

According to Clapesattle: “When a public committee hearing on the pending bill was announced, some of the university officials considered the situation serious enough that they asked Dr. W. J. Mayo to appear for the Foundation. It was an amazing request to make—to ask a man to defend himself for being magnificently generous! But after a minute’s thought, Dr. Will replied, ‘I’m a good soldier. If you . . . think it’s necessary, I’ll do it.’”

The crowded, fractious chamber hushed as Dr. Will began to speak. Clapesattle said, “He talked . . . simply, earnestly, colloquially.”

“So that you may understand what my brother and I desire to do, let me go back to our boyhood days.

"My father, Dr. W. W. Mayo, was recognized as the leading physician and surgeon of Southeastern Minnesota. When we were small boys, we assisted him as much as we could, gradually growing into the profession much as a farmer boy learns by working with his father.

"No, my father had certain ideals. He believed that any man who had physical strength, intellectual capacity, or unusual opportunity held such endowments in trust with them for others in proportion to his gifts.

"I have always thought a good deal of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. There’s a line in it, which explains why we want to do this thing. It is ‘that these dead shall not have died in vain.’ We know how hard it is for those who have had the misfortune of deaths in their families, of deaths that might have been avoided. What better could we do than take young (colleagues) and help them become proficient in the profession so as to prevent needless deaths?”

Helen Clapesattle wrote that a quarter-century later, people who had heard the speech “were still referring to it as the greatest, most eloquent speech they had ever listened to.”

And yet, it almost disappeared from the historical record. Dr. Will spoke without notes or manuscript. In that era of silent movies, it was not possible to capture a live speech on film. Fortunately, a few journalists in the crowd took notes—shorthand then being a common business skill—and jotted down some of Dr. Will’s words. His transformative speech is known in the annals of Mayo Clinic as the “Lost Oration.”

The bill failed, but the ideals expressed in Dr. Will’s impromptu remarks still guide the mission of Mayo Clinic, in which medical education and research advance the ultimate goal of serving patients.

The affiliation with the University of Minnesota continued in the decades that followed. The opening of the Mayo Memorial Building on the university’s campus in 1954 symbolized the relationship. Starting in 1983, Mayo Clinic became an independent, degree-granting institution, and collaboration with the University of Minnesota continues in other avenues.

Mayo Clinic has undergone several changes in corporate structure and governance over the years, but the priorities of patient care, research, and education remain central to our mission, as symbolized by the three shields of the Mayo Clinic logo.

Learn more about Mayo Clinic's history.

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Alyssa Frank

Alyssa Frank is a Marketing Associate at Mayo Medical Laboratories. She supports marketing strategies for product management and specialty testing. Alyssa has worked at Mayo Clinic since 2015.