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This article first appeared in June 1973, in the publication Mayovox.
“The growth of the Mayo Clinic and Saint Marys Hospital has about it something of a fairy tale,” said Sister Generose Gervais, administrator of Saint Marys Hospital. “Why should a famous Clinic and a famous hospital grow up in a small, unknown midwestern town?”
Speaking last month to a combined meeting of the Boards of Trustees of the two institutions, the quick-witted affable administrator speculated “The most probable answer is the right people living at the right time made the right use of the right opportunity.”
Mayo Public Trustees, together with their Medical Trustee colleagues, met with their Saint Marys counterparts one morning for a talk, tour and informal coffee reception.
Hosted by Saint Marys, the group formed in Walters Hall of the Alfred Unit where Sister Generose gave an illustrated talk on the roots of the one-of-a-kind relationship. She spoke of the date (1883) Mother Alfred proposed to Dr. W. W. Mayo that the Sisters of Saint Francis build a hospital.
She called to attention Dr. Mayo’s hesitation—“The city is too small to support a hospital”—and negative public attitudes common at that time toward even the best hospitals—“One did not go to the hospital to get well but to die.”
When Mother Alfred persisted, Dr. Mayo asked “Would you be willing to risk $40,000?” “Yes,” she replied, “and more if you want it.”
The contract was let August 1, 1888, for $18,750, total, and construction began.
Saint Marys Hospital was to have officially opened with appropriate ceremonies October 1, 1889. But since an individual needed surgery September 30 of that year, the hospital opened with no fanfare and cared for its first patient.
The first nursing staff consisted of five Sisters. The medical staff was comprised of Dr. W. W. Mayo and his sons Dr. Will and Dr. Charlie.
The sparsely finished facility was considered a 27-bed hospital. But it wasn’t, really. After eight persons were admitted the Sisters had to surrender their beds to the patients. Each evening, mattresses were set out on the floor for the Sisters.
According to policy, the hospital was open from the beginning to all persons, regardless of race, color, sex, financial status or religion. All patients received the same care, the same accommodations. The measure of the patient’s medical needs determined his care and treatment. Financial status was not considered.
In the beginning, Saint Marys opened as a general hospital, but the great influx of surgical patients and the lack of room brought about a change to an exclusively surgical hospital “until such time as sufficient room might be provided for general hospital work.”
Beginning in 1894, addition after addition was built to the hospital. A second addition was opened in 1899; a third in 1904; a fourth in 1909; a fifth in 1912 and a sixth in 1916. In 1922 a 300-bed surgical pavilion was added. Another extension was completed in 1927, and so it has gone. “Throughout the past fifteen years,” said Sister Generose, “remodeling and modernization . . . have been almost continuous.”
“But the mere fact of 83 years of continuous development and expansion of Saint Marys Hospital does not make it unique,” said Sister Generose, “aside from its unusual size in a community of 60,000. What is unique is its relationship with the Mayo Clinic. The two institutions have grown side by side, independent in organization (there are no contracts) yet sharing the same objectives and facilities and cooperating in providing service to the same people in an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust. It just has to be the greatest living example of trust that there is.”