Why Mayo Clinic owns and operates a 56-bell bell tower

There are roughly 180 carillons — musical instruments made up of at least 23 bells that do not swing, but rather are struck by clappers to create music — in the United States and Canada, but only one is owned by a medical center.

Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., holds that distinction. Its Plummer Building houses the 56-bell carillon that can be heard throughout campus on weekdays, tolling the time as well as songs.

Mayo Clinic is so devoted to its carillon that it employs its own carillonneurs, or carillon player, to play live music in addition to the carillon's automated tunes. The medical center has had four such employees since 1928.

History of the carillon

The 56-bell carillon is a "direct legacy from the Mayo brothers," says Johanna Rian, PhD, program director of the Mayo Clinic Dolores Jean Lavins Center for Humanities in Medicine.

William James Mayo, one of the co-founders of the Mayo Clinic, traveled through Belgium and England and "fell in love" with the carillons he heard there, Dr. Rian says.

From there, Dr. Mayo bought a carillon that included 23 bells — the heaviest of which weighed in at 7,000 pounds.

Once the carillon made it to America, engineers managed to hang the heavy instrument in the tower of the Plummer Building, which had just completed construction.

More bells were added to the original 23 bells in the 1970s and it is now "one of the most complete carillons in North America," according to Paul Scanlon, MD, the medical director of the Mayo Clinic Center for Humanities in Medicine.

Patient benefit

The soothing music of the carillon plays into Mayo Clinic's overall mission for patient healing, according to Dr. Rian.

"Mayo's mission is the needs of patients come first, [along with the] awareness that beautiful environment and arts can be part of the healing process for patients," she says. "The Mayo brothers and their peers felt very strongly that the environment of Mayo should instill confidence in the patients. They invested a fair amount in architectural design that is beautiful and soothing and calming," Dr. Rian says. The carillon plays into that aesthetic.

The Rochester carillon is under the direction of Mayo Clinic's Center for Humanities in Medicine. The center "serves the needs of the patient by integrating arts and culture into the healthcare environment of Mayo," says Dr. Scanlon.

The center oversees a variety of programs. For instance, the arts at the bedside program involves bringing in teaching artists to meet with patients one-on-one to help with visual arts, music and creative and reflective writing.

What Dr. Rian calls the "jewel in the crown" of the center is the Harmony for Mayo Concert series — a free concert held every Monday and broadcast live into patient rooms. The series is endowed by Rosemary and Meredith Willson and will run in perpetuity.

Those two are just a taste of programs the Center for Humanities in Medicine oversees.

As for the carillon, "We think of it as an additional music program," Dr. Rian says.

Dr. Scanlon adds that having a carillon "in the quiver of arts media is pretty cool."

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