Remembering Joseph Mayo and His Contributions to Animal Science

By Carolynne Keenan, Guest Writer
Group of people sitting around a table

Joe Mayo (far right) sits with some of his immediate family. From left are Nancy Mayo (daughter-in-law), Dave Mayo (son), Bill Mayo (son), and Laura Frances Mayo (wife). Courtesy of Dave Mayo.

By Carolynne Keenan, Guest Writer

In the 1990s, when Joseph Mayo, D.V.M, ran out of gas leading coworkers home from a meeting in Bethesda, he pulled over to the side of the road on I-270 and waited for help. He didn’t have to wait long; within a few minutes a passing motorist took pity on the group of scientists and offered them a lift back to Fort Detrick.

Random acts of kindness just happened when Mayo was around, explained Melinda Hollingshead, D.V.M, Ph.D., chief of the Biological Testing Branch, who worked with Mayo for 20 years—since he hired her in 1992. “He was one of the finest people I’ve ever known,” Hollingshead said, speaking of her long-time colleague and friend, who died suddenly in November 2012.

Mayo was one of the most well-liked and well-respected members of the National Cancer Institute campus at Frederick from the moment he stepped on the scene in 1974.

Award-Winning Animal Science Researcher

Mayo received the prestigious Charles A. Griffin Award in 2003, which “recognizes an individual or group of individuals who have demonstrated ethical scientific and/or technological advancements in humane experimentation or improved animal care practices,” according to the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science website.

Mayo and Clarence Reeder, Ph.D., a retired NCI colleague, revolutionized how science is done, by advocating for the use of clean—meaning disease-free—mice in laboratory research. “His push for clean animals and clean facilities is what allowed NCI to move into tumor-based testing,” Hollingshead explained.

His legacy isn’t just in the groundbreaking standards and practices he helped set up; Mayo also helped people.

He helped students—from veterinary students near his Alabama farm, to assisting Frederick Community College students, to even hosting study groups for his son, Joseph “Dave” Mayo, Jr., and classmates.

He was optimistic and loved life, as well as his job, said Dave, who is the Delivery and Receiving supervisor for SAIC-Frederick. Mayo didn’t have plans to golf away his retirement; instead, he came back to work as a special volunteer and consultant. “He’s the smartest guy I ever knew,” Dave said.

Hollingshead agreed. “He set about solving problems. He knew who to call, or if he didn’t know, he was smart enough to ask for help.”

World War II Veteran with a Ph.D. in Veterinary Medicine

Mayo was a World War II veteran, serving in the Navy in the South Pacific and taking advantage of the possibilities offered by the GI Bill after serving his country.

Mayo graduated from the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa in 1949; then, he graduated from Auburn University with a doctorate in veterinary medicine in 1957. He followed that up with a master’s degree, also from Auburn University, in 1965.

He worked in a private veterinary practice in Alabama, his home state, from 1957 to 1963. After a two-year stint as an instructor in physiology at Auburn University while earning his master’s degree, Mayo joined the staff at the Southern Research Institute in Alabama. He worked there as the head of the Experimental Solid Tumor Section, Cancer Screen Division, from 1965 to 1974.

Thirty-Two Years at NCI

In 1974, Mayo switched gears and became the chief of the Biological Testing Branch, Developmental Therapeutics Program, NCI campus at Frederick. He held that position for 32 years, retiring in 2006.

Even though he retired, Mayo still worked as a special volunteer for the lab he formerly led. In fact, Hollingshead recalled, Mayo was at the NCI campus at Frederick the day before he died.

During his tenure at NCI, Mayo worked for about a year as the acting associate director for the NCI campus at Frederick (then known as the NCI-Frederick Cancer Research and Development Center), from 1995 to 1996. He wrote numerous publications throughout his career and earned an NIH Merit Award for his work.

“He was always good to talk to and gave great advice,” Hollingshead said. “You may go the rest of your life not knowing someone like him.”

Carolynne Keenan is a public affairs specialist, NCI Office of Scientific Operations.