A Death In France
September 7, 1917
When the United States entered the First World War on April 6, 1917, the University of Kansas, like all other universities and communities across the country, became a beehive of activity. KU officials joined Governor Arthur Capper’s “Kansas Council of Defense,” faculty members pitched in to direct campus conservation drives, female students folded bandages for the Red Cross, and hundreds of male students enlisted in various branches the US military. But as Associate Dean Mervin T. Sudler of the KU School of Medicine recalled, “To most of us, the Great War seemed a long distance away and the hideous frightfulness of it all only penetrated our consciousness dimly.”
By September of that year, the US had been engaged in the war “to make the world safe for democracy” for five months. KU, located deep in the American heartland, remained relatively unscathed and campus life had returned to some semblance of normality. “We were told that men were giving their lives to the cause of liberty and justice,” noted Dean Sudler, “but these were men whom we had never seen and to whom we had no personal ties.” Indeed, added the dean, “The blood of men runs not red ten thousand miles away.” On September 7, 1917, however, the blood of the first American officer killed in action ran red right onto French soil. This fallen officer was Lt. William T. Fitzsimons, holder of two degrees from the University of Kansas. The war had finally come to KU.
William T. Fitzsimons was born in Burlington, Kansas, on April 18, 1889, and attended St. Mary’s College in St. Mary’s, Kansas, before transferring to the KU School of Medicine in 1908. Two years later, he had earned his Bachelor of Arts degree, and in 1912, received his MD. After graduation, he spent a year at St. Mary’s Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, followed by a 14-month stint at Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. In September 1914, Dr. Fitzsimons felt compelled to travel to Europe to assist, in whatever way he could, those soldiers currently being ravaged by the early battles of the Great War. He spent six months treating the wounded at hospitals in England, and then crossed over to war-torn Belgium to perform similar services, before returning home in late 1915.
Back in Kansas, the 27-year-old Fitzsimons accepted surgical and teaching positions at the KU School of Medicine. But his homecoming was short. As soon as the United States declared war on Germany, Fitzsimons joined the Army Medical Reserve Corps. He was quickly commissioned a first lieutenant, and in July 1917, steamed back across the Atlantic for France to resume his medical duties, this time in service of his own country and his own countrymen. “His voluntary return to France was made in spite of the fact that he had seen the Great War in all of its hideousness,” explained Dean Sudler in an article for the Graduate Magazine. “He could have no feeling of romance, for he knew the grimness of the struggle upon which he entered; yet he felt that there was definite work which he could do; and perhaps the call came more clearly to him because of this former experience and knowledge.”
The Army assigned Fitzsimons to a group of doctors called the Harvard Unit. He would serve with the unit for less than two weeks. On the night of September 7, 1917, Fitzsimons was killed during a German air attack on his field hospital. He had become KU’s (and America’s) first casualty of the war.
“The attack could not have been a mistake,” a fellow soldier, Maj. Dr. Paul Woolley, later recalled, for “there was nothing of military value near the hospital tent in which he was working.” And according to the Kansas City Star, “The nature of the attack that killed the young officer aroused the nation and enlistment soared,” especially after former president Theodore Roosevelt drew the country’s attention to Fitzsimons’ death with a scathing, front-page editorial that appeared in the September 17, 1917, edition of the Star. Denouncing Germany’s “calculated brutality,” her “deliberate policy of wickedness,” and her “systematic campaign of murder against hospitals and hospital ships,” Roosevelt’s call to arms inspired untold thousands to join up and avenge the martyred doctor.
In a moving eulogy, Dean Sudler praised Fitzsimons’ sacrifice and charitable spirit, saying “any country is safe when such high ideals are held and practiced by its young men.” He further acknowledged that this loss “brings home keenly to the University of Kansas that the liberty of our country was again in jeopardy and that men were giving their all in order that democracy might live; and the future of a free country be safe-guarded.”
KU Chancellor Frank Strong offered similarly moving words in a letter to Fitzsimons’ mother, Mrs. J. T. Fitzsimons, expressing his sincerest condolences and the University’s gratitude for her son’s willingness to “give his life for the freedom of all humanity.” The chancellor praised Fitzsimons’ selflessness as indisputable evidence of how “our country has assumed the spiritual leadership of the world.” Strong also hoped that, in the future, all young men would be as willing as the fallen doctor to “feel the promptings of loyalty and respond so nobly to the call of their country.”
Almost immediately, KU administrators, faculty, and students began raising money to commemorate the life William T. Fitzsimons gave for his country and to symbolize all he meant to the University. The fund’s organizers eventually decided that the best way to honor the doctor’s life would be to provide for his sister Catherine’s future education. Chancellor Strong wanted to do more, though, so he wired the Surgeon General to inquire about naming a government hospital in honor of Dr. Fitzsimons.
In 1920, the Department of the Army changed the name of Army General Hospital No. 21 in Aurora, Colorado, to Fitzsimons General Hospital. And two years after that, the William T. Fitzsimons Memorial Fountain at 12th and Paseo in Kansas City, Missouri, was dedicated to the memory of the first American WWI casualty. His Army buddy, Maj. Woolley, commander of the newly christened William Fitzsimons American Legion post, unveiled the fountain before a crowd of over 5,000 friends, family, and fellow citizens on May 30, 1922.
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas