Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2751: MRS. WILSON OF THE MAYO CLINIC

by Megan Cole

Today, we look at a woman who made medical history. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

It surprises me that more people don’t know who Maud Mellish Wilson was. Well, I didn’t know who she was until the Mayo Clinic asked me to write and perform a solo performance about her. Now that I do know, I am one of her devoted admirers.

Megan in the role of Maud Mellish
Megan Cole in the role of Maud Mellish

Maud Mellish Wilson was Mayo’s first medical editor. It was she who edited the very first volumes of the “Collected Papers of the Mayo Clinic,” started the famous journal “Mayo Clinic Proceedings,” and wrote a manual called “The Writing of Medical Papers,” which is still used today and which includes such excellent advice as, “When writing a medical paper, don’t always go back to the Garden of Eden and review the literature to date.”

When Maud came to Mayo in 1905, she was charged with expanding the medical library. The so-called library at that time consisted of a table with a couple of chairs, a small bookrack, and no place at all for physicians’ published papers (legend has it that those were mostly consigned by a well meaning handyman to the Clinic’s coal bin). Maud rolled up her sleeves and in only a few years developed a library that matched the reputation of the emerging Mayo Clinic in the early 20th century.

She was a study in opposites: a gentle powerhouse, a compassionate taskmaster, an intimidating scholar who didn’t boast about it. She was raised on the rough prairie of Minnesota, where she learned the virtues of carrying your own weight and thinking ahead and being curious and never doing anything halfway and, most importantly, being true to yourself.

Maud Mellish Wilson

As a girl, she had always wanted to become a doctor, but women weren’t allowed in medical schools in those days, so she attended a nurses’ college and audited courses at Rush Medical School in Chicago. The 1880’s were a golden age of innovation and medical giants, one of whom was Dr. Albert Ochsner, the famous surgeon and pioneer of microscopy, appendectomy, and hospital organization. Maud became his manuscript editor and trusted colleague, and so, when one William J. Mayo asked his friend Ochsner who might help him organize his practice up there in Rochester, Minnesota, Ochsner knew the very person for the job.

Maud Wilson was the primary architect of what came to be known as “the Mayo Style.” Between 1909 and 1933, when she died of abdominal cancer, not a single manuscript left the Mayo Clinic without first passing across her desk and being checked for clarity, accuracy, unambiguous language, and, what was most important to the brothers Mayo, due credit given to the source. Her great passion was, and I use her words, “the transmission of truth on the page.”

Maud Mellish Wilson was a pioneer, a seeker, a fighter, and a lover of words. And when she was in her late 60's, she was made an honorary member of the faculty of medicine at the Mayo Clinic. Some things do change.

I’m actor Megan Cole for the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


H. Clapsattle, The Doctors Mayo. (2nd edition) (Rochester: Mayo Clinic Press, 1969).

M. Mellish, The Writing of Medical Papers. (Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders, 1922. Also: Nabu Press, 2010)

C. W. Nelson, Mayo Roots. (Rochester: The Mayo Foundation, 1990).

This episode was first aired on October 31, 2011



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2011 by John H. Lienhard.