- A dictionary of medical eponyms

Sister Mary Joseph Dempsey

Born  1856
Died  1939

Related eponyms

American Catholic nun, nurse, and hospital aministrator, born May 14, 1856, Salamanca, New York; died March 29, 1939, Rochester, Minnesota.

Biography of Sister Mary Joseph Dempsey

Sister Mary Joseph Dempsey, daughter of Irish immigrants, was born Julia Dempsey in Salamanca, New York. In 1878 she entered the third order regular of St. Francis of the congregation of our Lady of Lourdes in Rochester, taking the name Sister Mary Joseph.

Over the next years she taught school in several places until 1889, when she was assigned to new St. Mary's Hospital, built by her order in the wake of a tornado which had devastated the area in 1883. The hospital was opened on October 1, 1887. The staff consisted of William Warrall Mayo (1819-1911), who had planned the hospital and his two sons, Charles Horace Mayo (1865-1939) and William James Mayo (1861-1939).

Sister Mary Joseph learnt nursing from Edith Graham, a graduate nurse who later became the wife of Charles Horace Mayo. From 1890 to 1915 she was the first surgical assistant to William James Mayo, and in September 1892 she was appointed nursing superintendent of St. Mary’s Hospital, a position she remained in until she died in 1939.

In 1906 Sister Mary Joseph opened St. Mary's Hospital School for Nurses, which trained both sisters and laywomen. In 1915 she helped organize the Catholic Hospital Association of the United States and Canada and was chosen its first vice president. In addition to her work at St. Mary's, her remarkable administrative and medical skills contributed greatly to the success of the Mayo brothers in establishing their world famous surgical practice and their Mayo Clinic. The original surgical building at Saint Mary's Hospital is now named "Joseph Building" in her memory.

Sister Mary Joseph first noticed that a 'nodule' in the umbilicus was often associated with advanced malignancy. She drew William James Mayo’s attention to this sign and he published an article about it in 1928, referring to is as the "pants button umbilicus". In 1949 the English surgeon Hamilton Bailey (1894-1961), in his famous textbook "Physical Signs in Clinical Surgery", in 1949 coined the term "Sister Joseph's nodule" for an umbilical metastasis.


  • D. Trebing and H. D. Göring:
    Die Nabelmetastase. Sister Mary Joseph und ihre Zeit.
    Der Hautarzt, February 2004, 55 (2): 186-189.
    [The umbilical metastasis. Sister Mary Joseph and her time]

What is an eponym?

An eponym is a word derived from the name of a person, whether real or fictional. A medical eponym is thus any word related to medicine, whose name is derived from a person.

What is Whonamedit?

Whonamedit.com is a biographical dictionary of medical eponyms. It is our ambition to present a complete survey of all medical phenomena named for a person, with a biography of that person.


Whonamedit? does not give medical advice.
This survey of medical eponyms and the persons behind them is meant as a general interest site only. No information found here must under any circumstances be used for medical purposes, diagnostically, therapeutically or otherwise. If you, or anybody close to you, is affected, or believe to be affected, by any condition mentioned here: see a doctor.