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George Elton Mayo (1880–1949)

by Helen Bourke

This article was published:

George Elton Mayo (1880-1949), by unknown photographer, c1935

George Elton Mayo (1880-1949), by unknown photographer, c1935

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 13694

George Elton Mayo (1880-1949), social theorist and industrial psychologist, was born on 26 December 1880 in Adelaide, eldest son of George Gibbes Mayo, draftsman and later civil engineer, and his wife Henrietta Mary, née Donaldson. Educated at Queen's School and the Collegiate School of St Peter, he lost interest in medicine at the University of Adelaide and, after 1901, at medical schools in Edinburgh and London. In 1903 he went to West Africa, and returned to London, writing articles for magazines and teaching English at the Working Men's College. He returned to Adelaide in 1905 to a partnership in the printing firm of J. H. Sherring & Co., but in 1907 he went back to the university to study philosophy and psychology under (Sir) William Mitchell. He won the Roby Fletcher prize in psychology and graduated with honours (B.A., 1910; M.A., 1926) and was named the David Murray research scholar. In 1911 he became foundation lecturer in mental and moral philosophy at the new University of Queensland and in 1919-23 held the first chair of philosophy there. On 18 April 1913 in Brisbane he had married Dorothea McConnel.

In Brisbane Elton Mayo was a public figure, lecturing for the Workers' Educational Association and serving on the university's war committee. Influenced by Freud, Jung and Pierre Janet, he studied the nature of nervous breakdown and with a Brisbane physician, Dr T. H. Mathewson, pioneered the psychoanalytic treatment of shell-shock. His first book, Democracy and Freedom (Melbourne, 1919), stated the basis of his social thought later developed in numerous articles and in his major works, The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilisation (New York, 1933) and The Social Problems of an Industrial Civilisation (London, 1945). Observing the disturbing level of industrial strife and political conflict in Australia, Mayo formulated an analogy between war neurosis and the psychological causes of industrial unrest. Drawing on social anthropology, he argued that the worker's morale, or mental health, depended on his perception of the social function of his work. He saw the solution to industrial unrest in sociological research and industrial management rather than in radical politics.

Mayo left Australia for the United States of America in 1922. A Rockefeller grant enabled him, as a research associate at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, to investigate the high labour turnover at a textile mill. This work attracted the attention of the Harvard School of Business Administration where he was appointed associate professor in 1926 and professor of industrial research in 1929. There he joined and designed investigations into personal and social factors determining work output at the Western Electric Co.'s Chicago plant; these famous Hawthorne experiments were pathbreaking studies in modern social research. Mayo was one of the most influential, if controversial, social scientists of his day.

In 1947 he retired from Harvard to England where he died at Guildford, Surrey, on 1 September 1949; a short man, who smoked excessively, he had suffered from chronic hypertension. His wife and two daughters survived him. The Elton Mayo School of Management in Adelaide was developed as a tribute to him.

Dr Helen Mayo was his sister. His brother Sir Herbert (1885-1972) became a justice of the Supreme Court of South Australia and president of the Law Council of Australia. Another brother, John Christian (1891-1955), was a prominent Adelaide radiotherapist and surgeon and another sister Mary Penelope Mayo, M.A., (1889-1969) was a historian of early Adelaide.

Select Bibliography

  • L. F. Urwick, Elton Mayo—His Life and Work (Syd, 1960)
  • R. C. S. Trahair, The Humanist Temper. The Life and Work of Elton Mayo (New Brunswick, USA, 1984)
  • G. E. Mayo, The Mad Mosaic: A Life Story (Lond, 1984)
  • H. Bourke, ‘Industrial unrest as social pathology: The Australian writings of Elton Mayo’, Historical Studies, no 79, Oct 1982
  • University of Queensland Gazette, no 15, Dec 1949, p 2
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 7 Sept 1949, p 7 and 8 Sept 1949, p 7
  • Mayo papers (Baker Library, Harvard University)
  • Mayo family papers (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

Helen Bourke, 'Mayo, George Elton (1880–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

George Elton Mayo (1880-1949), by unknown photographer, c1935

George Elton Mayo (1880-1949), by unknown photographer, c1935

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 13694