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Our View: Dr. Chuck left a major legacy, like his father, uncle

August 2, 2018

Fifty years ago Saturday, Rochester was stunned by the news that Dr. Charles W. Mayo — “Dr. Chuck” — had been killed in a one-car wreck near the Mayowood estate.

He had just turned 70 that day.

Tributes came in from around the world, and not just because he was the son of Dr. Charles H. Mayo, who with Dr. William J. Mayo and their father, W. W. Mayo, had turned an ordinary, small-town Minnesota practice into a world-caliber medical center — perhaps the first true Destination Medical Center.

The tributes came from leaders around the world because Dr. Chuck had made his own mark. Yes, in part because he was the son and grandson of famous men, with all the privileges that come from that, but primarily because he carved his own path. He accomplished what he wanted in medicine but also went off in other directions that took him to all corners of the globe.

A memorial in the Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England noted, with quintessential British understatement, that “it was perhaps inevitable that young Charles William Mayo — known internationally as Chuck — should study medicine after leaving Princeton.” Inevitable, yes. As a prince of Mayowood, there was little doubt he would follow his illustrious family members into medicine, which comes with its own pressures and constraints, and he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in 1926.

He was named consultant surgeon at Mayo in 1931 and professor of surgery in 1947, and was widely respected as an expert in the field of abdominal and colonic surgery. He served on the Mayo Board of Governors from 1933 and carried on the family leadership at the clinic until his retirement in 1964.

But it was his taste for adventure and globe-spanning interests that took him in other directions. He commanded a Mayo medical unit in New Guinea during World War II. In the 1950s, he edited a medical journal, Postgraduate Medicine, that the Annals described as the finest medical publication in the U.S. He served on the University of Minnesota Board of Regents and other boards. But most of all, he regarded himself as a citizen of the world, and in the early, idealistic years of the United Nations, President Eisenhower named him a delegate to the World Health Organization and president of the American Association for the United Nations.

Those assignments and interests took him all over the world, as the Post Bulletin clip files attest, as an informal U.S. ambassador: to Nepal, Japan, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during the Cold War, and beyond.

Former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, whose husband, FDR, had led the effort to form the U.N., said of Dr. Chuck in her “My Day” column in 1954, “He is much interested in international affairs and is especially concerned about the value of the U.N. and its effort to bring about peace in the world.”

The writer of the memorial in the Annals must have known him well: “What of the man? Like his father, Charlie Mayo, Chuck was short and stocky with soft grey-blue eyes expressing tenderness. His puckish sense of humor, so well-known to his intimate friends, was infectious and was sometimes revealed even on important ceremonial occasions, though inwardly he was somewhat shy.”

Like all of us, he had his foibles, but “above all, in his dealings with his fellow men, he had a truly human approach and a capacity for discovering the best in everyone and abhorred denigration,” the writer says. “He was thus respected and almost worshipped by his patients, assistants and nurses.”

Among other meaningful ways to be remembered, “abhorring denigration” is among the best.

His wife, Alice Plank Mayo, who was just as beloved by many in Rochester, had died after a long illness on Nov. 9, 1967, and according to the story in the Annals, “he never recovered from the recent death, after a long illness, of his charming wife.”

He was laid to rest next to her, on the Mayowood grounds, 50 years ago today.

President Lyndon B. Johnson, in that tumultuous summer of 1968, put out this statement after Dr. Chuck’s death:

“Dr. Charles William Mayo was one of those rare men whose talents touch and enrich the lives of men everywhere. He won fame as a surgeon and medical administrator; the name of the great medical institution he headed has become a symbol of hope the world over; he was a real pioneer in group medical practice.

“In addition, Charles Mayo was a gifted educator, author, editor and public servant. All of us are grateful for the life he lived — and saddened by his death.”

Those words likely rang true 50 years ago in Rochester, where he was a friend and neighbor, a tireless advocate for the city, and an exemplary representative of this area to the world.

In all the years since, no one has taken his place. As many likely realized at the time, that day at Mayowood marked the end of an era for the clinic that bears his name, and for Rochester.

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