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“The Country And Our State Are Looking To Us”

July 1, 1952


As dean of the University of Kansas School of Medicine and director of the KU Medical Center during most of the 1950s, Dr. W. Clarke Wescoe presided over a period of “momentous change and daring innovation,” as historian Thomas N. Bonner characterized his tenure in The Kansas Doctor.

During Wescoe’s eight-year term, which began on July 1, 1952, he supervised an unprecedented building boom that enabled the Med Center’s campus in Kansas City, Kansas, to grow from less than a dozen structures to nearly 20. Additionally, this Cornell alum and respected pharmacologist led the KU School of Medicine to the highest enrollments and biggest operating budgets of its roughly 50-year existence.

The Wescoe years also saw a number of significant institutional, curricular and research-oriented advancements. Postgraduate medical education was expanded tremendously; mental health and treatment of the mentally ill became a major priority; millions of dollars in grant money were obtained to perform research on cancer, heart disease, polio and other illnesses; and new technology-based teaching tools, such as endoscopic television cameras, were introduced.

Just as significantly, Wescoe helped engineer, at long last, the end of racial segregation in KU hospital facilities, initially by using the occasion of a polio outbreak to test – and rather quickly disprove – the then-prevalent assumption that white patients would resist receiving treatment in an integrated environment.

Finally, through his effective administration of the “Rural Health Program for Kansas” (initiated by his Med School predecessor, Dr. Franklin D. Murphy), Wescoe inaugurated a new era of state service on the part of the KU School of Medicine. With major funding from the Kansas legislature and supplemental monies from other sources, this initiative empowered the Med School to help bring about vast improvements in the availability of quality medical care throughout the state’s rural areas. The KU Medical Center benefited from this outcome as well, rising to new heights of statewide, indeed even nationwide, prestige.

Like Murphy before him – who advanced from dean of the Medical School to chancellor of the University – Wescoe’s effective service as dean also proved a springboard to KU’s top administrative post, which he assumed in 1960. Yet because of his lockstep career advancement as Murphy’s two-time successor, Wescoe’s tenure – particularly as Med School dean – rarely has been studied in its own right. A case could thus be made that this is an historical oversight long due for revision.

William Clarke Wescoe, a man who would devote much of his professional career to Kansas and its flagship University, began life not in the Sunflower State but rather in the Keystone State. Born May 3, 1920, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, to Charles H. and Hattie G. Wescoe, young William (or Clarke as he would later prefer) early on distinguished himself in academic pursuits, graduating first in his Allentown High School class of 1937. Obviously college material, it was, nonetheless, hardly a foregone conclusion that he would be able to attend.

While Clarke’s father had a good job as assistant secretary for the Lehigh Portland Cement Company, his income was not so great that he could finance a full university education for his fourth and youngest child. Fortunately, though, Charles Wescoe’s employer, company president Joseph S. Young, was much more than a boss. He was also a close friend. And upon Clarke’s high school graduation, Young made the Wescoe family a most generous offer.

“You know,” Young said to Charles Wescoe (in Clarke’s recounting some 50 years hence), “if we raise your salary to see to it that Clarke has all the education he wants, you’re going to lose some on income taxes. So,” the Lehigh president declared, “I’d like to make a deal with you.” On the condition Clarke pursue a career in medicine or law, the arrangement was that Young would personally underwrite his education – with two important caveats. Should Clarke choose law, Young would send him off to New Jersey’s Princeton University, his own alma mater, covering all undergraduate tuition and living expenses, but just for four years, “and then he’s on his own.”

However, if Clarke chose medicine, Young offered to finance the young man’s undergraduate studies at Muhlenberg College, located in their hometown of Allentown, but in addition, would then pay for him to attend “any medical school he selects for as long as he cares to go. I’ll pay for his tuition, his books, and all of his equipment,” Young said.

Although he had been accepted at Princeton, in the end Clarke opted for what he dubbed the “long shot” medical route and enrolled at Muhlenberg. By all accounts, he did his benefactor proud and made the very most of his good fortune, triple-majoring in chemistry, biology and English on the way toward receiving his Bachelor of Science degree in 1941, again as class valedictorian. Beyond his academic abilities, Wescoe also demonstrated considerable leadership skills, winning the presidencies of the student body, his graduating class and of Muhlenberg’s chapter of the Alpha Tau Omega (ATO) fraternity.

During Wescoe’s senior year, in fact, one more honor was bestowed upon him when the national chapter named him the country’s most outstanding ATO. Called the Thomas Arkle Clark Award and conferred at the fraternity’s 1941 National Congress, it recognized Wescoe for excelling in “scholarship, leadership [and] service” and for demonstrating “the personal qualities of character, integrity and responsibility.” The award’s presenter was national ATO president Willard M. Benton, a district court judge in Wyandotte County, Kansas, and a 1920 alumnus of the KU Law School. Benton was undoubtedly impressed by the 21-year-old Wescoe – but so too, it seems, was his daughter Barbara, also in attendance and, at the time, a KU undergraduate. The feeling was apparently mutual, and Clarke and Barbara remained in touch.

In the meantime, Clarke Wescoe was preparing to enter medical school, and true to his word, family friend and benefactor Joseph Young again opened his checkbook. Wescoe chose to attend the prestigious Cornell University Medical College, located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in New York City, which he entered in September of 1941, all his expenses being covered by Young. Yet before Wescoe even finished his first semester, the US was plunged into World War II following Japan’s December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. “At that point,” Wescoe recalled, “all of us, within ten days, were blanketed into the military service so that we could not move.” Wescoe, however, was right where he wanted to be – and fortunately, Cornell was where the military wanted him, too.

“The government didn’t want us to volunteer for the infantry or anything else,” Wescoe said, “because they recognized the great need there would be for medical officers.” Instead, Wescoe became one of approximately 140,000 young men eventually assigned to the War Department’s Army Specialized Training Program. Identified by their highest-percentile scores on military intelligence and aptitude tests, these soldiers – future engineers, linguists, psychologists, doctors, dentists and other professionals – would undergo officer training while receiving government-paid college educations. With Uncle Sam assuming the burden of Clarke’s Cornell expenses, Joseph Young was relieved of his financial commitment, although “he did,” according to Wescoe, “continue to buy me extra books and things of that sort.”

The wartime absence of many senior physicians and other experienced medical personnel necessitated increased responsibilities for the aspiring doctor who, as a fourth-year student, was put in charge of an entire ward of respiratory patients at the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center (present-day New York Weill Cornell Medical Center). Also under his charge were patients suffering from various venereal diseases, principally syphilis.

Wescoe’s domain was short-staffed, so one of his duties became to deliver the urine samples collected from VD patients every 24 hours to the laboratory of Dr. Walter F. Riker, a Cornell pharmacology professor and New York Hospital researcher, who would then run tests to monitor the patients’ progress. At this time, the standard treatment for syphilis was arsenic-containing drugs like Salvarsan. But since many patients developed serious dermatological side effects, Dr. Riker was experimenting with a compound known as British Antilewisite, or BAL, initially developed to treat mustard gas burns.

In Wescoe’s telling, his own research career and lifelong fascination with pharmacology began when, one day, he decided to “put down the big jar [of urine]” and ask Dr. Riker, “What are you doing?” Riker countered by asking Wescoe if he “really wanted to know [since] there was always the possibility that I was being polite or was only mildly curious, and I said of course I did.” Upon receiving this assurance, Riker proceeded to explain his work and, very soon, had taken Wescoe under his wing, allowing him to assist with the BAL trials. “That started a friendship and a research career that has extended now for 46 years,” recalled Wescoe in a 1990 interview. “He was a great teacher. He and I got along beautifully.”

So much so that, in 1944, after Wescoe earned his MD from Cornell, he sought assistance from Riker and obtained a War Department research fellowship in pharmacology. This allowed him to remain stateside and continue his Cornell-based collaboration with Riker on treatments for sexually transmitted diseases, which were becoming a growing problem for the US armed services.

In addition to deciding on his professional direction, the year 1944 saw Wescoe make a major personal decision as well – marriage to Barbara Benton, the Jayhawk coed he had met three years earlier. The wedding, Wescoe’s first KU connection of sorts, preceded his medical school graduation by a few weeks. Afterward, the newlyweds chose to begin their life together in the Empire State when the newly minted MD accepted an internship, then a residency, at the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center.

At the War Department’s direction (and, later, with its acquiescence) Wescoe did not see combat during World War II. But even with the cessation of hostilities he remained, in a sense, government property. By now a captain, in 1946 he was ordered to the US Army’s Fitzsimons General Hospital in Aurora, Colorado. Because of his Cornell work with respiratory patients, Wescoe was put in charge of the tuberculosis ward, which at the time was filled primarily by those American soldiers who’d survived the Bataan Death March and wartime Japanese internment in the Philippines. (Coincidentally and in retrospect, this Colorado posting ranked as Wescoe’s second informal connection to the University of Kansas, as the hospital had been named in memory of Dr. William T. Fitzsimons, an Army lieutenant and KU Medical School graduate who was the first US officer killed in World War I.)

Wescoe did not remain at Fitzsimons Hospital for long. After only three months, he was reassigned to the Army Chemical Center at Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland. This facility, originally established during the First World War to develop offensive chemical weapons and defensive countermeasures, was one of several installations run by the Chemical Warfare Service. Post-World War II, the Army Chemical Corps (as it was now euphemistically called) continued its work in these fields and also trained American soldiers in the appropriate procedures for responding to chemical attacks.

Attached to the Pharmacology Section of the Chemical Corps’ Medical Division, Captain Wescoe’s responsibilities at Edgewood Arsenal centered on biomedical research and the development of pharmacological treatments to various chemical and nerve agents, such as sarin and tabun, among the most toxic substances ever produced. “We didn’t work on developing new agents,” Wescoe explained. “The ones we had were the ones that were captured from the Germans. We worked on antidotes,” the most important of which was atropine.

By 1948, upon receipt of his military discharge, Wescoe had returned to New York City and began putting his now finely honed pharmacological expertise to use in civilian life. He accepted a Cornell Medical School assistant professorship in pharmacology and, in this capacity, resumed his successful and prolific research partnership with Dr. Walter Riker.

Easily their most important work involved the creation of a pharmacological antidote to curare, a muscle-relaxing agent used principally in abdominal surgery. To counter curare’s paralytic effects and allow patients’ muscles to begin functioning normally again, Wescoe and Riker devised a compound called neostigmine. This drug, administered postoperatively and sold commercially as Prostigmin, “revolutionized the use of anesthesia for surgical operations,” according to KU Medical School surgery professor Dr. Stanley R. Friesen, one of Wescoe’s future colleagues.

As a result of this and other work, in 1949, Wescoe received a prestigious five-year research fellowship from the Markle Foundation’s Scholars-in-Medicine program, designed to reward “gifted practitioners” seeking to “further their careers in academic medicine.” The award carried a $5,000 annual stipend that could be spent, as Wescoe later described it, “in any way the scholar wanted, for equipment, for travel, for books, anything at all.”

Yet perhaps the most valuable outcome was the attendant reputation it created for the not-yet 30-year-old physician. Indeed, Wescoe’s status as a Markle Scholar, coupled with his assistant editorship of the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, eventually brought him to the attention of Dr. Franklin D. Murphy, dean of the University of Kansas School of Medicine. Murphy had grand and ambitious plans for his institution, and was always on the lookout for bright young physicians who could help him achieve this vision. In 1950, Murphy was also in the market for a new professor of pharmacology, and on March 16 of that year, he drafted a letter to Wescoe offering him the job. (Wescoe’s résumé was indeed impressive, but, as he once admitted, his wife’s KU and Kansas lineage immensely strengthened his candidacy.)

Several colleagues quickly advised Wescoe against taking the KU School of Medicine post. They argued that his present position at Cornell held far greater prestige and, in addition, that its location in New York City allowed him access to a far more diverse and specialized professional community. He had also received several offers from private pharmaceutical companies, many of which dangled significantly more lucrative salaries than the $7,300 a year Dean Murphy could provide.

In the end, though, after “a considerable amount of soul-searching,” he formally accepted Murphy’s offer two weeks later, a decision made easier upon learning he could take the Markle fellowship with him to the KU Medical School. “New York as a place to live means nothing to me,” Wescoe told Murphy, “and is detrimental to my family. [He and Barbara now had two small children]. In Kansas I see an opportunity for a normal social existence in the midst of people I like. I also see an opportunity to serve the community and to grow roots in [a place] which appeals to me.”

Furthermore, he added, “You appear to be a man with whom I would like to work and one whom I would like to help implement his plans.” Concluded Wescoe, “The prospect of coming delights me,” and “barring an act of God, you can expect me to report on July 1, 1951, to begin my term of duty.”

In the 15-month interim, Murphy and Wescoe maintained a close correspondence. The dean consulted his new professor on all departmental policy and personnel decisions as if he were already a KU Medical School employee. In the process, the two men became fast friends, establishing a personal and professional relationship that would endure for decades. Regarding one of Murphy’s most important decisions, however, Wescoe received only last-minute notice.

On June 30, 1951, the day before he was to begin his medical professorship, Wescoe was invited to Dean Murphy’s home. (“I thought this was to be my official welcome!” he later confessed.) Actually, it was to be an official goodbye. Along with Wescoe, Murphy had assembled several other new and junior faculty members to inform them that he was leaving the Medical School to accept the job of KU chancellor. The announcement would appear in the next morning’s papers, and Murphy’s tenure on Mount Oread would begin September 1.

“He went around the room to ask us each individually what we thought,” Wescoe later wrote. “I do not recall what any of the others said, but when he came to me (last, because I was the youngest and most recent appointee) I told him I was disappointed. I could not know where the future would lead, and, if I still had the option, I would seriously consider returning to Cornell.” Murphy’s reassuring words of “Sit tight; everything will be all right,” apparently did not have the desired effect. “I left depressed,” Wescoe remembered.

But in the end, Wescoe took Murphy’s advice. For the next 12 months, he served agreeably under Dr. Edward Hashinger, a professor of medicine whom Wescoe remembered as a “grand old physician” who “held us all together” as acting dean. During World War II, Hashinger had served as first head of the US Army’s 77th Evacuation Hospital, a unit composed primarily of KU Medical Center doctors and nurses. His appointment as dean was temporary until a permanent replacement could be found.

As a relative newcomer, Wescoe busied himself with teaching and research. He paid scant attention to the succession situation, which seemed to be dragging on longer than anticipated, much to the consternation of many established faculty members. Consequently, he was understandably surprised when fellow professor Dr. E. Grey Dimond approached him one day in February 1952 with the news that he, Wescoe, was the faculty’s choice for dean. And what’s more, a group of Wescoe’s Med School colleagues was being dispatched to Lawrence to make that very case to Chancellor Murphy.

“We are going to tell him that he has to appoint a dean and that it should be you,” Dimond said, as Wescoe recounted the incident decades later. “Not because we have all that [much] confidence in you, but because … you are the newest, and you have had no chance to become identified as a member of a clique.” Perhaps paradoxically, then, Wescoe’s colleagues seemed to regard his newcomer status as a significant attribute, likewise his relative youth. At only 32 years, he was the same age Franklin Murphy had been when he assumed the deanship in 1948.

As it happened, though, Murphy needed no convincing since he had already, in his own mind, earmarked Wescoe for the post. Of course, the appointment of Wescoe would require some serious “politicking” given that several area physicians had expressed interest in the Medical School deanship. (In a 1990 interview, Wescoe referred to this applicant pool as “a pretty motley crew.”) And as Murphy knew from his own tenure as dean, taking care not to upset the Kansas medical community – which the appointment of an “easterner” like Wescoe might very well do – was at least as important as picking the best candidate for the job.

By the same token, Murphy recognized the need to bring the selection process to a conclusion to guard against a loss of Medical School morale and momentum that the absence of a permanent dean was in danger of creating. Thus, in April 1952, the chancellor personally intervened, informing the Kansas Board of Regents that his choice – as well as the medical faculty’s – was Dr. W. Clarke Wescoe. For their part, the Board members ultimately agreed, and on July 1, 1952, Wescoe became the KU School of Medicine’s top administrator.

“To say the appointment met with universal approbation,” Wescoe later acknowledged, “would be far from the truth.” Nonetheless, in the words of Med School professor and institutional historian Dr. Ralph Major, Wescoe did enjoy the “full confidence and affection of the faculty.” And in short order, the new dean would win over the “student body and the [state] medical profession” as well.

Upon taking over the reigns at 39th and Rainbow Boulevard, Wescoe found himself the nation’s youngest medical school dean, just as Franklin Murphy had been four years earlier. On the KCK campus itself, Wescoe had 450 medical students under his administrative charge, 123 of whom were members of the incoming 1952 class alone – marking a 35 percent increase over pre-1948 levels. In addition, noted historian Thomas N. Bonner in The Kansas Doctor (1959), another 1,700 students were enrolled in various other disciplines, including “nursing, medical technology, therapy, dietetics, X-ray technology and postgraduate medicine.”

This, however, represented only part of Wescoe’s responsibilities, because in addition to his role as head of the Medical School, the new dean elected to accept the overall directorship of the KU Medical Center as well, a position Murphy had not held. In this capacity, Wescoe also would be responsible for overseeing the smooth operation of the Med Center’s Bell Memorial Hospital. And as such, roughly 2,000 employees, plus more than 10,000 inpatients and some 100,000 outpatients annually, came under his administrative purview.

“It is my firm purpose,” Wescoe declared at the dawn of his combination deanship-directorship, “to strengthen and solidify the programs that were put into effect by my predecessors.” Chief among these was the “Rural Health Program for Kansas,” the brainchild of former Dean Murphy. Signed into law in 1949 by Governor Frank Carlson, this $4.3 million measure, widely known as the “Murphy Plan,” envisioned a mutually beneficial partnership between the KU Medical Center and the state of Kansas.
At this time, many Kansas communities, especially those in rural areas, were suffering from an alarming paucity of physicians and other medical professionals. (Indeed, in some cases, whole counties had not a single doctor.)

As a remedy, the Murphy Plan positioned the Med Center to address this physician shortage by increasing its capacity to graduate more doctors and expanding its ability to offer new continuing education courses for those physicians and nurses already practicing. Accordingly, the $4.3 million would go toward enlarging the KCK campus’ physical plant and its instructional capabilities – all with the aim of bettering the health and welfare of Kansans from all corners of the state.

Considerable groundwork had been laid by the time Dean Wescoe assumed office. Yet still, it was he who was entrusted with turning Murphy’s vision into a coordinated series of successful programs. To this end, one of Wescoe’s main responsibilities was overseeing the requirement that all fourth-year medical students spend six weeks in the field working alongside established physicians – again, mostly in underserved regions. Known as the Rural Preceptor Program (which remains in effect to this day), it was already proving very helpful in mitigating often-serious rural doctor shortages. And thanks to Wescoe’s effective stewardship, the program would soon reap substantial dividends for the KU Medical Center, too, vaulting it to unparalleled heights of esteem among Kansan residents and enhancing its reputation as a “statewide institution.”

The praise seems to have been eminently justified. According to Bonner in The Kansas Doctor, Wescoe’s effective management of the Murphy Plan allowed the Med Center to declare, by 1958, that every Kansas county had at least one doctor and that “no citizen is more than 20 minutes by automobile” from quality medical care. Wescoe himself would later say that, during the 1950s, the people of Kansas “had the best rural health care in the United States…. I used to tell people,” he added, that “‘I would rather be taken ill in western Kansas than to fall down in the street in New York City, because I know I would get better medical attention and more promptly.’ I wasn’t kidding when I said that,” he explained, “because we had developed [an efficient] system.”

Also a credit to Wescoe’s leadership was his management of another plank of the Murphy Plan. By means of the expanded postgraduate and continuing education programs, it had been his predecessor’s goal that the KCK campus become a place where physicians and other medical professionals throughout Kansas could come and learn the latest techniques, master the most modern methods of treatment. Under Wescoe, this goal was realized – and then some.

As early as 1953, noted Bonner, the Sunflower State ranked “first in the nation in postgraduate medical education,” measured in terms of annual enrollment. And by 1957, more than 5,000 attendees were taking these refresher courses each year. Most were Kansas practitioners, but many others flocked to KCK from 45 other US states and from eight foreign countries. The overall effort reaped widespread acclaim for the KU Medical Center and compelled more than a few states to imitate the Kansas model.

Much of this progress was made possible by the unprecedented building boom that occurred during Wescoe’s eight-year administration, yet another effect of the Murphy Plan. Whereas in 1952, the first year of Wescoe’s deanship, the KCK medical campus possessed less than a dozen structures of varying sizes, by decade’s end it could boast 18, including a Children’s Rehabilitation Unit, a new library, general science and nursing facilities, and a Student Union Building. As Wescoe later observed, “There was not a day during my deanship when a major construction project was not in progress.”

One of the most important new structures was a purpose-built home for the Department of Psychiatry. Occupied in 1957, this building (the present-day Olathe Pavilion) was a reflection of the growing awareness of mental health issues, led by such Kansas institutions as the Topeka-based Menninger Clinic, which inspired much-needed 1950s-era reforms of state psychiatric hospitals. For his part, Dean Wescoe helped spur this progress by requiring that all fourth-year KU medical students spend six weeks working in state mental hospitals. Thus, by the time the new psychiatric facility opened, noted Bonner, Kansas “had become the envy of her sister states” in “the hope she gave her mentally ill. In the Kansas medical renaissance after 1945,” he added, ”no achievement shone brighter than this.”

Although not physically part of the KU Medical Center campus, one last real estate addition should also be noted – one that would provide direct benefits to Wescoe, his family, and his successors. In 1957, KU alum Kenneth Spencer and his wife Helen (namesakes, respectively, of the Kenneth Spencer Research Library and the Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art, both located on the Lawrence campus) donated their expansive Mission Drive home in Johnson County to the Medical School, to be used as the dean’s residence. This came as most welcome news to Clarke and Barbara Wescoe, now the parents of three children. It also allowed for more comfortable entertaining and more formal official functions.

As enthusiastic as he was about seeing new structures go up on the 39th and Rainbow campus, Clarke Wescoe appeared just as eager to tear certain things down. “My coming to Kansas,” he recalled, “brought me into a situation I had never experienced before – a segregated hospital. The Eaton Building, above whose entry door was carved ‘Negro Ward,’ served as the inpatient facility for those patients who were not white.”

Officially, Kansas was a color-blind state. However, there were lingering vestiges of the “separate but equal” doctrine that, prior to the US Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, enabled the perpetuation of racial segregation. The Med Center’s Eaton Building, which had been purpose-built for African-American patients, was an example of this remnant.

KU administrators had long insisted on – or at least acceded to – segregated hospital facilities, claiming that white patients, particularly those from the “Jim Crow” state of Missouri, would not tolerate receiving their care alongside African-Americans in an integrated environment. Wescoe was one of a growing number of Medical Center faculty and staff members who believed the time had come to challenge this assumption. He also went on record to agree with a visiting NAACP delegation that segregation was inherently wrong, and promised he would do all he could, as soon as he could, to end the practice.

That the KU Medical Center was fully integrated over the course of Wescoe’s 1950s-era deanship is certain. Memories differ and archival records are somewhat unclear, however, on exactly how this was accomplished.

In Dean Wescoe’s own recollection, the process was initiated during a violent polio outbreak. Since the Eaton Building was the only Med Center structure with large enough wards to accommodate the “iron lung” respirators then used to help polio victims breathe, Wescoe ordered that every stricken patient – regardless of race – be housed there. (The principal effect of the polio virus is to paralyze the muscles, including the diaphragm, which is crucial to proper respiration. In the wake, however, of Dr. Jonas Salk’s 1955 development of the polio vaccine, iron lungs were put on the path to obsolescence.) The polio crisis eventually subsided, but at Wescoe’s direction Eaton remained an integrated building. Then, gradually but deliberately, every other ward and facility followed until, by decade’s end, segregation had disappeared throughout the entire KU Medical Center campus.

Others, though, have credited Dr. Herbert Miller, professor and chairman of pediatrics, with being the prime mover of sorts in the anti-segregation effort at 39th and Rainbow. According to some former colleagues, it was Dr. Miller who acted first by personally integrating the Med Center’s nurseries – with the full support, incidentally, of Dean Wescoe – thus impelling the trend towards full integration. (Miller also broke down another barrier by accepting Dr. Lewis Napier Bass as the institution’s first African-American resident physician.)

In any event, the relative smoothness with which segregation was phased-out effectively debunked previous administrators’ assumptions of widespread racial prejudice among white patients. “I can’t remember,” said Wescoe, “any static that I had from any patient, from any newspaper or anything else after the desegregation process was begun.” Dr. David Robinson, longtime chairman of the Plastic Surgery Department, did recall some. “Occasionally,” he remembered in a 1990 interview, “we would get a bigoted or a very difficult type of a personality who would object to being in a room with a black person, but it was very rare. It made very little difference with most patients,” he said, adding that desegregation caused “no real problems.”

If the 1950s saw the decline and fall of racial segregation at the KU Medical Center, it saw conversely the sharp rise of medical research – long a sorely neglected and bedraggled institutional stepchild. By way of comparison, as Bonner observed in The Kansas Doctor, whereas during the entirety of Dr. Harry R. Wahl’s administration as dean (1921-48), the Med School “had been unable to find [even] six thousand dollars” for research purposes, by the late 1950s, Clarke Wescoe was figuratively sitting atop more than one million annual research dollars.

During the 1950s, Bonner wrote, “Considerable research was being [conducted at the Med Center] in cancer and heart disease, as well as polio, tularemia, and a dozen other fields.” Additionally, the 39th and Rainbow campus became “an international center for the distribution of the [Salk] vaccine for polio virus,” thanks largely to the work done by pediatrics professor Dr. Herbert A. Wenner in his Virus Research Laboratory. Prior to the polio vaccine becoming available nationwide in 1955, Wenner, according to his Medical School colleague Dr. Tom D.Y. Chin, had been “one of the key collaborators of the vaccine evaluation program.” Beyond conducting important clinical trials, Wenner also developed an improved technique to grow and alter the polio virus in tissue culture, thus enabling more efficient production of the vaccine.

At this time, too, the Med Center became a national leader in innovative pedagogical techniques. Under Murphy, KU had been “first in the nation to use television regularly in medical teaching.” By the end of Wescoe’s tenure, there had been a dramatic expansion of this technology to the point where tiny endoscopic cameras were being sent down the throats of anesthetized patients, transmitting images of their internal organs that students could view on TV screens.

One final initiative – first proposed by Murphy, but ultimately carried through by Wescoe – concerned the School of Medicine’s long-lamented divided existence. During the period from 1912 to 1951, medical students had received their first three semesters of medical education – mainly background scientific instruction – at KU’s Lawrence campus. Then, beginning with the 1951-52 academic year, when Murphy was still dean, the third semester was transferred to KCK, leaving only first-year medical students on Mount Oread.

Before his departure from the Med School, Murphy had secured permission to move the rest of the school to 39th and Rainbow, too, as soon as funds to construct the necessary buildings were approved. Wescoe aggressively championed this last step of consolidation, calling it an absolute “must” and contending that first-years were “out of contact with the majority of the faculty and completely divorced from the clinical atmosphere and patients.” Although his deanship would end before the required structures were erected, Wescoe helped secure the money that, at long last, brought first-year medical students to KCK in 1962. (There was, it should be noted, something of a short-term downside to this move, since the Lawrence campus lost some of its best faculty members in the basic life sciences as a result of the relocation.)

Back in 1952, in one of his earliest messages as dean, Wescoe addressed his Medical Center colleagues, reminding them, “We have gained, in a short time, a nationwide reputation for being the medical school to watch for bigger things. We must produce,” he challenged them, “for the country and our state are looking to us.” Eight years hence, from national pacesetting in postgraduate training and statewide esteem for its public health services, to a vastly enlarged physical plant, cutting-edge medical research and a whopping $10 million annual operating budget – indeed by nearly every conceivable measure – they did produce, and so did Clarke Wescoe.

To be sure, Wescoe benefited tremendously from the unprecedented legislative and popular support for a wide range of 1950s-era Med Center initiatives – and additionally, perhaps even primarily, from his close working relationship with Chancellor Murphy. This partnership, in fact, may well have been the key to their mutual success. “I don’t think there have ever been two executive officers of the University of Kansas,” Wescoe once said, “who ever got along as well as the two of us.” He described himself and Murphy as “surrogate brothers” who completely “trusted each other.” In dealings with the state legislature, the men were a potent one-two punch: “He was known as Mr. Outside,” Wescoe said, “because he painted with a broad brush” and was the recognized big-idea man. “I was known as Mr. Inside,” the person who took his ideas and made them reality.

Unfortunately, though, Murphy’s warm relations with the Kansas statehouse when it was under Republican control did not extend to the office of governor after Democrat George Docking won election to the post in 1956. Sparked by opposing political affiliations (Murphy was a card-carrying Republican who had actively supported Docking’s opponent), and exacerbated by widely divergent views on the proper role of a public university and the funding necessary to maintain it, by the spring of 1960, a long-simmering feud between governor and chancellor had reached crisis proportions. Deciding he’d finally had enough, on March 18 of that year, Murphy tendered his resignation and announced his plans to accept the chancellorship of UCLA. The night before, however, he invited Wescoe to his home – just as he had some nine years earlier – to break the bad news before it hit the papers. As then, Wescoe recalled, “I was depressed, if not devastated.” Curiously, though, “[Murphy] told me, as he had in 1951, to sit tight.” Once again, it proved good advice.

Chancellor Murphy had already sounded out the nine-member Kansas Board of Regents regarding the possibility of naming Wescoe his successor. And sure enough, a few days later, the Med School dean received a call from Board chairman Ray Evans. “Well, it’s all over,” Evans said, according to Wescoe’s account of the incident. “We are going to appoint you in the morning but I have to tell you something. The vote will be six to three.”

Apparently, Governor Docking was bitter over the terrible beating he was taking in the Kansas press in the wake of Chancellor Murphy’s resignation. As a result, Docking instructed the four regents he had appointed to vote against Murphy’s handpicked successor, basically out of spite, as a final insult to his nemesis. One of these regents had refused to go along, but the other three had agreed to follow Docking’s directive – setting the stage for the anticipated 6-3 outcome. And even though this meant Wescoe still had the votes to win approval, he initially refused to accept the chancellorship under this partisan cloud. “I don’t think [it’s] appropriate” or in the least acceptable, he told Evans, for the University of Kansas to get a chancellor “who is barely a majority candidate of the governing board.”

What eventually changed his mind was a call from KU Endowment Association chairman Maurice L. Breidenthal, who insisted Wescoe take the job, even if the vote was not unanimous. If Wescoe declined, warned Breidenthal, “the Governor will ruin us.” Thus, with the welfare of the University seemingly hanging in the balance – and after being told that the negative votes weren’t necessarily personal or reflective of genuine opposition – Wescoe relented and accepted the KU chancellorship just days after Murphy announced his impending departure. Roughly four months later, on July 1, 1960, Wescoe began his term as the tenth chief executive of the University of Kansas.

(It should be noted, as Wescoe later recounted, that this difficult beginning did, ultimately, have a happy ending. Following their “no” votes, the three dissenting board members “never again voted [against] anything concerned with me or the University of Kansas. We always had unanimous decisions.” Indeed, within a week, “each of those three men came to me and apologized for what they had done and said to me, ‘We’re sorry but we had to do it.’” As for his relationship with George Docking, Wescoe added, he was “always kind to me. The Governor and I never had any harsh words.”)

Wescoe served as University chancellor from 1960 until 1969, a period in KU history that in many ways was rife with achievement, and characterized by significantly heightened enrollments, increased state appropriations and research budgets, as well as a $43 million new building campaign and productive alumni outreach initiatives. The position also enabled Wescoe to reveal his lighter side in public, best evidenced by his propensity to break into song at various formal University events, earning him the nickname “the singing chancellor.”

But the 1960s were far different from the 1950s, especially on college campuses, and Wescoe’s time on Mount Oread turned out to be far more contentious and turbulent than his tenure at 39th and Rainbow. The University of Kansas was no stranger to that era’s wave of campus unrest, and Wescoe often found himself and his administration the objects of protest. In 1965, for example, his office was the scene of a 400-person sit-in aimed at ending the University’s perceived tacit approval of racial discrimination in off-campus housing and the Greek system. In the years that followed, anti-Vietnam War demonstrations became increasingly disruptive, perhaps most notably in May 1969 when protesters caused Wescoe to cancel the Chancellor’s Review of KU’s ROTC cadets in Memorial Stadium.

Also during the course of his administration, it was Wescoe’s lot to preside over the razing of such venerable KU architectural landmarks as the original Fraser, Blake, and Haworth halls, as well as “old” Robinson Gymnasium. These actions aroused the ire of historic preservationists, even though a case could be made that the demolished structures had outlived their usefulness and, under Wescoe’s predecessors, had been allowed to deteriorate to the point where they could not be saved.

After nine years at the KU helm, Wescoe finally decided to leave the University of Kansas and reconnect with his first love, pharmacology. In 1969, he accepted the vice presidency of medical affairs and research at Sterling Drug, Inc., based in New York City. Five years later, Wescoe was running the company outright as its chairman and CEO, positions he held until his retirement in 1985.

Prior to his death on February 29, 2004, at age 84 – and despite his subsequent service on countless corporate boards, charitable foundations and scientific panels – Wescoe never forgot the University of Kansas. Over the years, he and his wife Barbara (who passed away in 1998) donated 46 objects to KU’s Spencer Museum of Art including the fifteenth-century Standing Amida Buddha from Japan, as well as the “Tai Chi Figure” sculpture prominently displayed in front of the KU Law School’s Green Hall.

The University never forgot Wescoe either – and probably never will. Two KU structures are named in Wescoe’s honor: the Wescoe Hall humanities building on Mount Oread and the Medical School’s Wescoe Pavilion at 39th and Rainbow. Beyond that, in one final way, both Clarke and Barbara Wescoe will forever be part of KU: their remains are interred in the University’s Pioneer Cemetery, located on West Campus.

In considering Clarke Wescoe’s legacy at the KU Medical Center, it is admittedly difficult – yet perhaps, in the end, unnecessary – to try to separate him from his predecessor Franklin Murphy. “I perceived my mission,” Wescoe once said, “to be to fulfill what Franklin had had in mind and that was to [create] a first-class medical school,” to transform it from a “class B” to a “class A” institution. In terms of the rural health initiatives, postgraduate education programs and myriad other reforms and advances, Murphy “had made some rather broad promises,” Wescoe added, “and it became my responsibility” to carry them out.

Writing in the early 1970s, KU historian Clifford Griffin gave some indication of just how successful Wescoe’s efforts were. Following Wescoe’s eight-year deanship-directorship and his ensuing nine years as chancellor, Griffin was able to assert that the KU Medical Center had become the University’s “most distinguished division [and] its greatest single claim to excellence.”

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: The bulk of the documents and materials consulted for this article are housed in the University of Kansas Medical Center Archives in Kansas City, Kansas. For a comprehensive account of Dr. W. Clarke Wescoe’s youth, upbringing, education and miscellaneous early biographical information, see the transcript of his October 16, 1990, interview conducted by Deborah L. Hickle, pp. 1-7, hereafter denoted by “Wescoe Interview.” Also helpful are the numerous résumés and curriculum vitae contained in his faculty file, as well as a KUMC Inter-Office Memo (dated December 8, 1958), pp. 1-4, that features a detailed biographical sketch.
For the arrangement Wescoe had with Lehigh Portland Cement Company president Joseph S. Young, see Wescoe Interview, pp. 2-3; for his account of his decision to attend Muhlenberg College and subsequent enrollment at the Cornell University Medical College, see Wescoe Interview, pp. 3-5. And for his Cornell-based research experience with Dr. Walter Riker, see Wescoe Interview, pp. 5-12; Medical Center Bulletin 2:6 (August 1952); Inter-Office Memo, p. 1-2; and Medical Center Bulletin (Winter 1982).
Information about Wescoe’s experiences during World War II and his subsequent research work with the US Army can be found in Wescoe Interview, pp. 4-10; see also Medical Center Bulletin (August 1952). His becoming a Markle Scholar can be found in Wescoe Interview, pp. 12-13.
The circumstances leading up to Wescoe’s decision to join the KU Med faculty as professor of pharmacology are detailed in a series of correspondence between him and Dean Franklin Murphy. Among the most significant are the following letters: Wescoe to Murphy (March 3, 1950); Murphy to Wescoe (March 16, 1950); Wescoe to Murphy (March 29, 1950); Murphy to Wescoe (March 31, 1950). See also an extensive interview given by Dr. Franklin Murphy on January 19, 1990, also to Deborah L. Hickle, pp. 13-14 (hereafter referred to as “Murphy Interview”); Wescoe Interview, pp. 12-14; and Wescoe’s “Reflections” in Stanley R. Frieson, MD, and Robert P. Hudson, MD, eds., The Kansas School of Medicine: Eyewitness Reflections on its Formative Years, (University of Kansas Medical Center, 1996), pp. 16-17.
For additional correspondence prior to Wescoe’s actual assumption of duties, including his negotiations with the Markle Foundation to secure permission to take his fellowship with him to KU Med, see the following letters: Wescoe to Murphy (July 17, 1950); Murphy to Wescoe (July 29, 1950); Murphy to John M. Russell, executive director of the Markle Foundation (February 1, 1951); Russell to Murphy (February 7, 1951); Murphy to Wescoe (February 12, 1951); Murphy to Russell (February 12, 1951); Wescoe to Russell (March 13, 1951); Wescoe to Murphy (March 13, 1951).
For Wescoe’s year as professor of pharmacology professor, see Frieson and Hudson, pp. 17-18; Wescoe Interview, pp. 14-15; Inter-Office Memo, p. 2; and Medical Center Bulletin (August 1952).
How Wescoe was eventually chosen to succeed Franklin Murphy as KU Medical School dean is chronicled in the following accounts: Wescoe Interview, pp. 14-17; Frieson and Hudson, pp. 16-18; Murphy Interview, pp. 13-15; Ralph H. Major, MD, An Account of the University of Kansas School of Medicine (University of Kansas Medical Alumni Association, 1968), pp. 145-147. See also Lawrence H. Larsen and Nancy J. Hulston, The University of Kansas Medical Center: A Pictorial History, (University Press of Kansas, 1992), pp. 103-105, and Medical Center Bulletin (August 1952).
For KUMC enrollment and other figures at the beginning of Wescoe’s deanship-directorship, see Major, pp. 139-147; Thomas N. Bonner, The Kansas Doctor: A Century of Pioneering, (University of Kansas Press, 1959), pp. 267-274; and W. Clarke Wescoe, MD, “University of Kansas School of Medicine: An Outline of Its Facilities, Policies, Accomplishments and Objectives,” Journal of the Kansas Medical Society (March 1956), pp. 123-156.
Descriptions of the Murphy Plan and how Dean Wescoe carried out its various provisions are contained in the following: Wescoe Interview, pp. 17-29; Frieson and Hudson, pp. 7-9 and 18-21; Larsen and Hulston, pp. 103-105; Bonner, pp. 267-274; Murphy Interview, pp. 12-28. See also Clifford Griffin, The University of Kansas: A History, (University of Kansas Press, 1974), pp. 603-610.
Construction of the new building to house the Department of Psychiatry, as well as how mental illness became better understood and better treated in Kansas, is covered in Bonner, pp. 274-282. Other new building-related information can be found in Larsen and Hulston, pp. 103-137; Frieson and Hudson, pp. 18-23; Wescoe Interview, pp. 18-41; Major, pp. 145-147; and Wescoe, “An Outline of Its Facilities,” pp. 123-156.
For desegregation efforts during the 1950s, see Wescoe Interview, pp. 33-41; Frieson and Hudson, p. 19; Larsen and Hulston, pp. 104-105; Dr. David Robinson, interview with Deborah L. Hickle (December 5, 1990), pp. 16-17; and Dr. Eugene W.J. Pearce, interview with Amber Reagan-Kendrick (August 12, 2004), pp. 1-15.
For research conducted at KUMC during the Wescoe years, see Bonner, pp. 267-274; Wescoe, “An Outline of Its Facilities,” pp. 123-156. For Dr. Tom D.Y. Chin’s quote about Dr. Herbert A. Wenner’s polio work, see Frieson and Hudson, p. 108. The author is grateful to Dr. Frederick Holmes, professor emeritus at the KU School of Medicine, for his information about Dr. Wenner’s polio research as well.
The eventual consolidation of the KU Medical School at KCK is covered in Larsen and Hulston, pp. 104-105, 140.
For Wescoe’s account of his relationship with Franklin Murphy, see Wescoe Interview, pp. 30-33; for Murphy’s version, see Murphy Interview, pp. 13-15.
For the circumstances surrounding Murphy’s resignation as University chancellor, see Kansas Alumni (March 1960), pp. 16-17; Kansas Alumni (June 1960), pp. 10-12, 28. Of particular interest are the following issues of the University Daily Kansan: February 23, 1960, pp. 1,8; March 7, 1960, p. 1; March 8, 1960, p. 1; March 11, 1960, p. 8; March 15, 1960, pp. 1,8; March 16, 1960, p. 1; March 17, 1960, pp. 1-3, 8; March 18, 1960, pp. 1-5; March 21, 1960, pp. 1-2; March 22, 1960, pp. 1,8; and March 23, 1960, pp. 1,8. Also quite helpful is Griffin, pp. 517-543
Wescoe’s account of his elevation to the KU chancellorship can be found in Wescoe Interview, pp. 41-45.
Announcements of Wescoe’s death, complete with information concerning his post-KU career, can be found in Kansas City Star (March 7, 2004); Oread magazine (March 5, 2004); Lawrence Journal-World (March 11, 2004); and Muhlenberg Magazine (Spring 2004).
Wescoe’s quote about what he perceived to be his mission as KU Medical School dean is taken from Wescoe Interview, pp. 17 and 41. For Griffin’s quote on Dr. Wescoe’s legacy as head of the Med Center, see The University of Kansas: A History, p. 601.]