In 2005, O. Jeanne d’Arc Mayo retired from her longtime position as a physical therapist and an athletic trainer at Bowdoin College. But she continues to renew her physical therapy license each year—she wants to feel qualified to answer questions from friends and former colleagues, who still turn to her for advice. “I wouldn’t discuss anything unless I still had an active license,” says Mayo (’54, Wheelock’61). “I wouldn’t feel comfortable.”
That professionalism and commitment to patient well-being hasn’t changed since she became a physical therapist. In her 65-year career, Mayo has been a trailblazer, establishing the first physical therapy programs at hospitals in Georgia and Maine. In 2016, more than a decade after her retirement, she was elected to the Bowdoin College Athletic Hall of Honor in recognition of her pioneering work as the college’s first physical therapist and female athletic trainer, and her relentless advocacy for equal opportunity for women in Bowdoin sports.
Mayo began her career at the New York State Rehabilitation Hospital in West Haverstraw, N.Y., which was then dedicated to treating polio. The Salk vaccine was still being tested, and the hospital was filled with people who had contracted the virus during the final US polio epidemic. Mayo worked with patients of all ages, many encased in iron lungs.
In 1956, Mayo moved to Georgia to work with teams of medical providers traveling to rural areas to treat pockets of polio patients. She also accepted a job establishing the first physical therapy department at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany, Ga.
“For a relatively recent graduate, this was an amazing opportunity and learning experience—dealing with hospital administration, budgets, staffing,” she says. “Thankfully, I could and did make many phone calls to the Sargent PT department for advice.”
Working in the segregated South—where black patients needed a referral from a white doctor for admission to the hospital—was eye-opening. A native of Massachusetts, she had never seen “colored only” and “white only” signs on bathrooms and drinking fountains. “It was a new world to me,” she says.
A fellowship from the American Physical Therapy Association allowed her to return to Boston University in 1960 to pursue a master’s in education in vocational guidance and rehabilitation. She became chief physical therapist at Boston’s Lemuel Shattuck Hospital, where she worked closely with two physiatrists, a relatively new medical specialty at the time.
In 1962, Mayo and her new husband moved north. She received Maine state physical therapy license number 40—which remains in effect to this day. With so few physical therapists in the area, Mayo was repeatedly tapped by local nursing homes and nursing agencies to help develop exercise programs. She established the first physical therapy program at Parkview Hospital in Brunswick, Maine.
Mayo was elected to the Bowdoin College Athletic Hall of Honor in recognition of her pioneering work as the college’s first physical therapist and female athletic trainer, and her relentless advocacy for equal opportunity for women in Bowdoin sports.
When the youngest of her three children started school in 1970, Mayo opened her own clinic, one of the first independent physical therapy practices in the state. After eight years in the practice, with all three kids in junior high, Mayo needed more flexible, part-time work. Through a happy accident, she found an afternoon-hours position in the athletic department at Bowdoin College, which had only recently begun admitting women. Several people warned Mayo that the department might not be a welcoming environment for a female employee, but she applied for the job anyway.
“I didn’t do it to be a rabble-rouser,” she says. “I just applied for this job because it was convenient, and I knew I was competent and qualified.”
Mayo was hired and soon found that Bowdoin—like many colleges in the early years of Title IX, which protects students from discrimination based on sex—was vastly underequipped to support its female athletes. Mayo put constant pressure on the athletic department to treat male and female athletes equally. She lobbied for a bigger budget so a trainer could travel with women’s teams as well as men’s, insisted that women’s teams get new uniforms instead of wearing men’s hand-me-downs, and pushed for equal access for women to the athletic training room. Mayo retired in 2005 after 26 years at Bowdoin.
Mayo says she is proud of the improvements she pushed for at Bowdoin and is amazed at the changes she has witnessed in the field of physical therapy. When she graduated from Sargent, physical therapists “couldn’t even change a hot pad without a doctor’s orders,” she says, and now most states allow them to evaluate and treat patients independently. Academic research and publishing have broadened the field tremendously, she says, giving her and her colleagues much to study in order to keep abreast of all the advances.
Mayo has remained active in the Sargent community, organizing reunions and recommending the college’s graduate programs to many Bowdoin athletes. She attended her 40th reunion alongside her daughter, Sara Walker Mayo (MED’94), a surgeon in Maine. At her 50th reunion, Mayo received a Special Recognition Award from Sargent and in 2014 she received the Professional Achievement Award.
She recently established the O. Jeanne d’Arc Mayo Sargent College Physical Therapy Scholarship to support physical therapy undergraduates with financial need. “I’ve been fortunate to work so long in the field that I chose. Going to Sargent was an incredible gift to me and it’s a pleasure to pay that back.”