© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A Century Ago, One Kansan Showed The World How To Fight Pandemics

The Journal
A statue of Samuel Crumbine, a pioneer in Kansas public health, near the Statehouse in Topeka.

If Samuel Crumbine were alive today, he’d recognize the precautions that Kansans are taking to limit COVID-19.

There’s little doubt he would approve of the closing of schools, theaters and restaurants.

He would worry about Kansas hospitals and wonder if their staffs are prepared for a crisis.

But mostly, he’d be determining how, once again, the government could persuade the public to take seriously the threat of a global pandemic.

It was 102 years ago that Crumbine, a public health reformer and executive officer of the Kansas State Board of Health faced down a similar crisis — the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

At the turn of the 20th century, he had led public health campaigns that encouraged Kansans to “swat the fly” to combat the spread of diseases, had “Don’t Spit on the Sidewalk” emblazoned on bricks and had encouraged the replacement of common drinking cups on trains and in public buildings with paper cups.

“If you are talking about Crumbine, then you realize he was a very early, early leader in public health – not just in Kansas, but nationally,” said Marilyn Irvin Holt, a historian and author based in Abilene and a consultant for PBS documentaries.

The 1918 flu pandemic began at Crumbine’s back door — in western Kansas — and flared up among men reporting for duty at Fort Riley. It soon spread worldwide in three distinct waves during 1918 and 1919, causing more than 50 million deaths and infecting nearly a third of the world’s population.

Because of Crumbine and a legion of nurses who helped champion public health, Kansas in the late 1800s and early 1900s was a leader in hygiene and disease prevention.

We’ve been here before

Several times over its 159-year history, Kansas has been called on to be a leader in the field of public health. In April 1957, the aptly named town of Protection in Comanche County became the first community in the nation in which everyone was immunized against polio.

Dave Webb, a Kansas historian and retired assistant director of the Kansas Heritage Center, was 8 years old when the Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, later known as the March of Dimes, arrived in Protection.

“They staged some events and took newsreel footage of it and used it in a national campaign,” Webb said, “to say that ‘Everyone in Protection is protected against polio. Why, you should be, too!’ ”

There was a barbecue and town parade, and Webb remembers riding on a float, dressed as a pioneer boy.

“I know that ABC ran a segment about it on the evening news and I was playing outside and Mom yelled, ‘Come in, quick!’ And, I didn’t come in very quickly and when I got there, she said, ‘Well, you were just on the evening news.’ They had a clip of the parade and showed the float I was riding on. I was crushed. I had missed my TV debut.”

It was a time when local swimming pools were closed. Watermelon was avoided. Children were encouraged to play only on their neighborhood blocks — all in the hopes of avoiding polio.

Former U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum remembers a childhood friend who nearly died from polio.

“He was a year older than I was, and so it made a big impression,” she said.

She’s spent the past few weeks hunkered down at her Morris County ranch and has been thinking of Kansans.

“What is important, when things are as serious as they are, is to lend a voice of quiet leadership, and it is enormously important for (government officials) to coordinate,” she said. “It was wise for the (Kansas) governor to make the decision she did with the schools. It is also important for families to realize the responsibility they have.

“What is really disappointing is how slow we were to pick up that we were going to need far more medical test kits, ventilators and medical garments for those in the health field to wear. That is unfortunate.”

She worries for people in rural communities who have medical needs and how rural hospitals struggle.

“Will Kansans be innovative and rally? I think they already are.”

Rallying for health

One of Crumbine’s greatest strengths was being able to tap into the sense of social solidarity Kansans have with one another, even those for whom public health wasn’t the chief concern. Kansans have a long history, dating back to the state’s earliest days, of trying to help one another through a crisis.

There’s evidence Kansans still demonstrate that spirit. From Manhattan to Council Grove to the Riverside neighborhood in Wichita and beyond, people are placing teddy bears in front windows so families can go on “bear hunts.”

Talented seamsters and seamstresses are producing protective masks.

In Kingman, people are working together to create a Porch Angels group to help groceries get delivered. Boot Hill Distillery in Dodge City is making and giving away hand sanitizer.

In Andover and Overland Park, teachers formed motorized parades and drove through neighborhoods to say goodbye and give their students a chance to do the same.

On Saturday nights, the town of Seneca has hosted a Quarantine Cruise Night for residents to cruise Main Street.

And that’s the idea that Kansans have historically rallied around.

“The thing about Crumbine was that he wasn’t just progressive, he also had a forward-thinking outlook to foresee and understand the way people spread disease,” Holt says. “He not only understood public policy, he knew how to get politicians to pay attention to public health.”

The Journal, the print and digital magazine of the Kansas Leadership Center, is publishing a digital newsletter that explores what is working, what isn’t working and what’s being learned during the response to COVID-19. To receive twice-a-week updates, subscribe here.  

KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.