Medicine for the Soul

One of the cool things about my job is working with the different libraries we serve. There are the beautiful old Carnegie public libraries, the newly renovated and fabulous school media centers, the old and fabulous school media centers, and the lovely academic libraries.

And then there are the special libraries. We have some interesting libraries in our region, like the library at Hormel (cue Monty Python’s “Spam” song), and the Chatfield Brass Band Library, with its unparalleled collection of music. Today I visited one of those special libraries: the Medical Library at Mayo Clinic.


Outreach Librarian Dottie Hawthorne gave me the tour, and has a wealth of interesting information about the library at her fingertips. The library is made up of a number of rooms on a number of floors in the historic Plummer Building, each one more spectacular than the last.

Before coming, CB Barb mentioned that I should “Look up.” I understand now what she meant. The ceilings are unbelievable.

The main reading room is on the 14th floor, with a wonderful view of the city. The ceiling is ornately carved plaster. The room is paneled in English oak, carved by craftsmen to complement the ceiling. A marbeled fireplace similarly carved is the centerpiece of one wall, and is almost big enough for me to stand in. Enormous stained-glass, leaded windows let in the light. Portraits of the Mayo Brothers, et. al. line the walls. I want to live there.

On the 12th floor is the main library. Again, the ceiling is fascinating – a collection of beams, painted with the names of medical notables throughout time. (see photo, above) As the Mayo Clinic site explains:

One of the special architectural features of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota is the carved and painted beamed ceiling in the main reading-room, Mayo Hall, of the Medical Library located in the historic 1928 Plummer Building. Dr. Henry Plummer, for whom the second Mayo Clinic building was named, was an early associate of the Mayo brothers and was the chief architect of the 1914 clinic building, the 1928 building (now the Plummer Building) and Mayo medical record system. Plummer, who also designed the original library floor in the 1928 building, selected sixty prominent physicians and scientists to be memorialized on the ceiling beams of the reading room. After Dr. Plummer’s death in 1936 and that of Will and Charlie in 1939, the names of the Mayo brothers were added to the ceiling.

The combination of marble arches and double-height, painted beamed ceiling make the architectural space unique. The painted ceiling beams serve as a permanent display of the sixty-two names of notable medical men and women selected to represent the best of science and medicine from antiquity to the mid-1930’s. A fishtailed merman and an eagle-winged griffin frame each name.

The 11th floor hosts the bookstore, mainly for the medical staff. Their ceiling is Wedgewood. (Yes, THAT Wedgewood.) It’s spectacular. Ecru and that famous blue, carved and festooned and fabulous. The area is due to undergo remodeling early in 2007, and will host the store and a cyber-cafe. I think I could live there, too.

The history is palpable. There’s a historical collection, too, with items dating back to the 15th Century. (1479, to be exact.) In the History of Medicine Library, we were able to see some of the books arranged in a collection celebrating that painted ceiling. The exhibit we saw was part two – the folks from 1811 (James Young Simpson, who was one of the pioneers in the field of anesthesia) to 1934 (Marie Curie, famous for the study of radioactivity.) The first exhibit spanned all of the centuries prior to the 19th. Of the 62 names on that ceiling, the library has works by 61 of them. We weren’t able to see the rest of the historical collection; not surprisingly, it’s kept under lock and key, in climate-controlled, archival conditions.

What an amazing resource. What an amazing space. And stay tuned – the library is celebrating its centennial next year, so there will be great doings at the Mayo Libraries. If you’re in Rochester, make a point of visiting. It’s well worth the trip.


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