Elton Mayo was born in Adelaide, South Australia on 26 December 1880 and died in Guildford, Surrey on 1 September 1949. He was the second child of a respected colonial family; his father was a civil engineer, and his mother Henrietta Mary nee Donaldson was devoted to her children’s education and success. Elton was expected to follow his grandfather into medicine, but failed at university studies and was sent to Britain.
Here he turned to writing, wrote on Australian politics for the Pall Mall Gazette and taught at the Working Men’s College in London. He then returned to Australia to work in an Adelaide publishing business where his radical management practices were not appreciated. He returned to university and became the most brilliant student of the philosopher Sir William Mitchell, won prizes for scholarship and in 1912 was appointed a foundation lecturer in philosophy and education at the newly established university in Queensland. Here he married Dorothea McConnel, who had been educated in landscape art at the Sorbonne and frequently visited Europe. They had two daughters, Patricia Elton Mayo, who would follow her father’s management thinking and had an interesting sociological career, and Ruth, who became a British artist and novelist and took the name Gael Elton Mayo.Mayo taught philosophy, ethics, metaphysics, economics, education and the new psychology of Freud, Jung and especially Pierre Janet.
From the beginning he trained himself in public speaking, and became an outstanding lecturer. He spoke at Worker’s Education Association classes and tutorials, and addressed unions and professional bodies. He much impressed Bronislaw Malinowski when they met in 1914, and they became good friends. During the First World War he served on government bodies, advised on the organization of work for the war effort, wrote and lectured on industrial and political psychology and psychoanalysis, and contributed a lively piece (Mayo and Booth 1916) to Lady Galway’s Belgium Book.
He was made a professor of philosophy in his university’s reorganization after the war. With a young Brisbane doctor, Thomas R.H. Matthewson, who had sought advice on the management of patients suffering war neurosis, Mayo refined his clinical skills in psychotherapy. He began to apply his observations on Matthewson’s patients, and the ideas of the new psychology to political and industrial problems and political agitators (Trahair 1981, 1982). He felt he could trace society’s ills to psychological causes (Bourke 1982).Mayo applied unsuccessfully for a directorship of adult education at the University of Melbourne, and went there to lecture on psychoanalysis before taking sabbatical leave to Britain in 1922. He intended to visit the United States on his way to the UK to work with a medical scholar at Oxford.
However, from the moment he landed in San Francisco he was sought as a speaker on many social psychological topics, attracted the attention of industrialists and industrial psychologists for his thoughts on psychological causes of industrial unrest, and readily explained America’s industrial problems by reference to understandable irrationalities among workers, the poor skills of managers and the inhuman conditions of work that made for an insane society (Mayo 1919, 1922a, 1922b).When his university refused to extend Mayo’s unpaid sabbatical leave, it forced his resignation. Destitute in the United States, he vigorously sought help from those who had led him to believe there was support readily available for his ideas and industrial research plans. Unexpectedly, he was promised an income for six months by the philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, and given a temporary post at the University of Pennsylvania in 1923. There he researched the value of rest pauses on worker productivity in various textile firms. In one study he introduced regular pauses from the back-breaking work in a cotton-spinning mill and saw improvements in worker productivity. The practice was assiduously opposed by the foremen who, when Mayo was absent from the plant, returned workers to past practices.
The effect of their intervention was a dramatic fall in productivity, thus illustrating the effectiveness of Mayo’s rest pauses. Mayo drew attention to this quasi-experiment to support his view on the value of treating employees humanely. Using these data, and the psychological and sociological ideas in his Democracy and Freedom and related papers (Mayo 1919, 1922a, 1922b), and his remarkable