“We Can’t Lose The Medical School”
June 21, 1920
By 1919, an educational entity known as the University of Kansas School of Medicine had been in existence for nearly a generation.
In addition to training physicians, it also offered a nursing education program and the 65-bed Eleanor Taylor Bell Memorial Hospital, enabling upper-level medical students to gain hands-on practice in diagnosing illnesses and prescribing treatments.
But all was not well with this adolescent institution. For starters, its facilities were divided between two campuses. The initial semesters of scientific preparation were taught on KU’s main campus in Lawrence, while the final years of clinical study took place some 40 miles to the east in Rosedale (part of present-day Kansas City, Kansas).
The Rosedale location, a rocky promontory known as “Goat Hill,” had been donated to the University – along with $100,000 in cash and real estate – by a Wyandotte County physician and land speculator named Simeon Bishop Bell.
But in the years since this “stupendous windfall” had been accepted, KU had been learning the truth of the old adage that you often get what you pay for.
Goat Hill was less than ideally situated. Not only was it a steep climb to the top, it offered little room for expansion. This inaccessibility and unsuitability for growth, combined with other drawbacks, made the KU School of Medicine’s future seem dim at best.
For example, the Kansas medical establishment railed against the institution, claiming it was too close to Missouri and employed too many Missouri physicians. State legislators, mindful of this antipathy, offered only anemic financial support, all the while complaining about the School’s high annual expenses.
Perhaps most damaging were the criticisms of Carnegie Foundation consultant Abraham Flexner who, in 1910, had censured the University for operating what he called “two half-schools.” As he saw it, not enough faculty members had undergone “modern training” and the School’s hospital was too small to provide aspiring physicians with sufficient bedside experience.
Even the 1911 completion of a second and larger Eleanor Taylor Bell Memorial Hospital on Goat Hill could not silence the critics. As KU historian Clifford Griffin put it, “All that the Medical School’s leaders had was a small, inadequate, understaffed school with a poor reputation.”
In the wake of the 1918 Kansas gubernatorial election, however, the KU School of Medicine found that it finally had an influential champion.
His name was Henry J. Allen, and it soon became clear that he would be “the long-awaited Messiah for whom the Medical School had prayed so long,” as Dr. Ralph H. Major put it in his 1968 Account of the University of Kansas School of Medicine.
Upon taking office in 1919, Governor Allen summoned Dr. Mervin T. Sudler, the School’s associate dean and day-to-day administrator, to Topeka. At this meeting, Allen began articulating an expansionist strategy for the Medical School. Very frankly, Allen confided to Sudler his flat disapproval of the Goat Hill site, agreeing with critics that it was inaccessible and virtually defied enlargement.
Given this, noted Major, Allen was positive that “no legislature could be persuaded to build a modern plant costing several million dollars on such a forlorn spot.” And moreover, added the governor, he would not personally squander his political capital by asking legislators to do so.
That said, Allen did express a strong desire to see the Medical School grow and prosper. And if Sudler and his University colleagues could secure a suitable site – at no cost to the state, by the way – the governor promised he would aggressively pressure the legislature not merely for a sizable initial appropriation, but also for annual commitments sufficient to build up a first-rate complex of facilities. This, at least, was what he expressed in private.
In public though, Allen followed a completely different tack. To the utter astonishment of Dean Sudler, who apparently was not let in on the entire strategy, Governor Allen took the exact opposite position in his official pronouncements.
Instead of suggesting a new location for the Med School, and far from advocating increased expenditures for it, he proposed that maybe the best thing to do (considering all the troubles with its Rosedale-based clinical program), was simply to abolish it altogether.
This news stunned Sudler and all those connected with KU. They were then floored when word came down from Topeka that perhaps a majority of legislators – many of whom had been eager to cast off the Med School millstone for years – seemed to think this a fine idea. Surely they were sunk, thought Sudler and his compatriots, and worst of all, they had been betrayed by the governor.
This was not, however, the case – indeed far from it. Despite this being his first year in elective office, Henry Allen, a veteran Kansas newspaperman, was proving to be an exceptionally cunning politician. Three-quarters of a century before President Bill Clinton perfected the art of “triangulation” in national politics, Allen was demonstrating how it worked on the state level.
The governor’s remarks about the Med School were purely for public consumption, and had been carefully thought through. It was all part of a plan. The net effect of this clever ploy, as Major later revealed in his Account of the University of Kansas School of Medicine, was precisely what the governor had intended all along.
“There was a great [public] outcry at the proposed abandoning of the Medical School,” according to Major. “Even those doctors who were dissatisfied with the conduct of the School, or who had felt it was a fundamental mistake to locate the School in Rosedale, were not prepared to see the only medical school in the state die such an ignominious death.” Nor were the citizenry of Kansas.
At this point – his havoc expertly wreaked – Allen re-entered the fray and staked out what appeared to be the reasonable middle ground. Having played bad cop to perfection, the governor now assumed the role of good cop by publicly proposing the same idea he had originally confided to Sudler.
If an appropriate new location could be found, maybe Allen could be persuaded to see the Med School’s Clinical Department remain in existence in Rosedale. And maybe, too, the legislature could be finally convinced to fully support it.
This was the art of politics at its best. The Kansas City Star, for example, praised Allen’s plan and predicted that, if implemented, it would put “an end to the long fight made by certain cheap politicians in the Kansas Legislature to move the hospital from Rosedale.”
Sure enough, having been skillfully buffaloed and gently painted as myopic skinflints by Allen, a majority of state legislators quickly fell into line. In 1919, both houses of the Kansas legislature approved the impressive sum of $200,000 to fund construction of a new hospital building in Rosedale, contingent on the governor’s condition that another site away from Goat Hill be provided at no cost to the state.
This condition was a daunting challenge, but not an impossible one. Dr. Don Carlos Guffey, professor of obstetrics and gynecology in the KU School of Medicine, was particularly taken with this opportunity. Living near Bell Memorial Hospital in Rosedale, each day he walked to work. Along his journey, Guffey passed through a relatively level 15-acre expanse owned by C.E. and Eliza Kern.
Situated less than a mile south of Goat Hill, this property at 39th and Rainbow Boulevard was close to the Strang Line interurban that offered a direct railway connection to Kansas City, Missouri (and from there, via trolley and railroad connections, to Lawrence). It was known as the Kern tract, and Guffey became convinced it was the perfect spot for the new Rosedale location the governor wanted.
Upon informing the Med School’s Dean Sudler about this property, as Dr. Guffey later recalled, his boss immediately “appointed me a committee of one to contact Mr. Kern in order to find out the price. This I did, explaining to [him] our problem. He priced the tract at $75,000, but added that if a Medical School would be located there he would give a $10,000 credit. That meant a net price of $65,000.”
Returning from his fact-finding mission, Guffey made a report to the assembled faculty of the KU School of Medicine. It was received with approval, and Guffey’s committee of one became a committee of four.
Charged with obtaining an audience with Governor Allen and ultimately giving him a tour of the site, the group included Guffey and Sudler, along with Dr. Franklin E. Murphy, professor of internal medicine, and Dr. P.T. Bohan, professor of clinical medicine.
Records are unclear as to when exactly their meeting or the governor’s visit took place. But by May 24, 1920, Allen was convinced he could persuade the legislature to support moving the Med School to the Kern tract, provided that KU first find a way to acquire the property without using state funds.
Writing to Mayor Frank Rushton and the Rosedale City Council, the governor expressed his belief that “it will be possible to create on that site a legislative interest and approval sufficient to guarantee there a much more valuable institution to the state than we could hope for on the present Bell Memorial site [on Goat Hill].”
As to how the University was going to raise the tidy sum of $65,000, once again Dr. Guffey took the initiative. At a subsequent faculty meeting, he personally pledged to donate $1,000 to the cause. Additional subscriptions from his colleagues then rolled in until the professoriat had contributed $12,000.
At this point, Guffey was assigned to approach Mayor Rushton in the hopes of securing the balance of funds from the citizens of Rosedale, who doubtless had a considerable vested interest in seeing, at long last, a thriving, fully supported and modern medical institution in their backyard.
“Of course, we can’t lose the Medical School,” said Rushton, according to Guffey’s account, “but what are you boys doing about it, since you are feathering your own nests?”
In response, the 42-year-old obstetrician plopped down an envelope – one suspects quite a large one – filled with the very $12,000 (in cash no less) that he and his fellow physicians had supplied out of their own pockets. This was “proof,” Guffey declared, “of our interest and our willingness to help.”
The mayor was impressed. But he then proceeded to up the ante. “Boy,” exclaimed Rushton, “that sounds like business. I’ll tell you what I’ll do. [If] your group will raise $35,000, I’ll persuade the [Rosedale City] Council to hold an election for the purpose of voting bonds for the other $30,000.”
Upon receiving a favorable University response to the mayor’s proposition, Guffey – long since the acknowledged point man on this project – was put in charge of raising the remaining $23,000 needed to hold up KU’s end of the deal. This responsibility became official on June 9, 1920.
Meanwhile, true to his word, Mayor Rushton convinced his city councilmen to authorize a special bond election. There was only one problem with this rapid turn of events. The Rosedale City Council had scheduled the referendum for June 21, just 12 days hence.
Believing voters would be more inclined to approve the measure if KU’s share was already in the bank, Guffey moved quickly. He beseeched members of the KU Alumni Association’s Kansas City chapter for assistance.
“For the first time in the history of the University of Kansas its alumni were called upon … to meet a financial emergency,” as Alumni Association President George H. Bowles later noted. “And by successfully meeting it, [the group] proved not only the value of its organizations, but also the interest the alumni are willing to take for the progress of their Alma Mater.” (This KU first notwithstanding, Bowles has an even larger claim to KU fame – his 1912 composition of the University’s “I’m a Jayhawk” fight song, written during his student days when he was nicknamed “Dumpy.”)
In the end, 238 alumni and assorted friends of KU came through with the additional funds, just in time for the June 21 referendum. On that day, the citizens of Rosedale overwhelmingly approved the $30,000 bond measure, meaning KU could now purchase the Kern tract outright, present it to the state, and hopefully soon reap the promised $200,000 appropriation.
As it turned out, the School of Medicine received far more than what Governor Allen had originally pledged. The Kansas legislature ended up approving some $435,000 for the Medical School during the 1921 session.
This amount “seemed enormous at the time,” as Dr. Major noted in his Account, “for the Medical School had received in appropriations from the legislature only $75,000 for buildings over [the previous] 14 years. A new era had really dawned for the Medical School.”
Over roughly the next three years, a new campus gradually began to take shape on the Kern tract (present-day 39th and Rainbow Boulevard in Kansas City, Kansas). The architectural centerpiece was the School’s new 120-bed Bell Memorial Hospital, the third KU hospital to bear the surname of the institution’s early benefactor.
Built at a cost of $235,000, this four-story, column-fronted brick edifice received its first patients on June 26, 1924. In its inaugural year of operation alone, the new Bell Memorial would admit more than 30,000 patients, deliver more than 300 babies, and respond to exactly 150 emergency cases.
Despite the development of its new campus and the fact that it now enjoyed considerably more legislative support, the Medical School was still, arguably, not a whole lot better off than it had been back in 1910 when Abraham Flexner penned his damning assessment.
The Carnegie researcher had then scolded the University of Kansas for operating a medical school consisting of “two severed halves,” one in Lawrence, the other in Rosedale. Fourteen years later, however, one could persuasively claim that it now consisted of three severed thirds.
There was the Scientific Department still on Mount Oread, offering the first three semesters of pre-clinical education. Then there was the old Goat Hill campus, which had not been evacuated and still housed the pathology and pharmacology departments, as well as a medical library. (The second Eleanor Taylor Bell Memorial Hospital had been promptly renamed Eleanor Taylor Hospital and taken over by the city of KCK, although the Medical School still provided the professional care and used it for teaching purposes.)
And finally, there was the 39th and Rainbow campus, consisting of the third Bell Memorial Hospital; a power plant; two ramshackle temporary additions, one doubling as an outpatient department and dispensary, the other (dubbed “the barracks”) serving as the “Negro Ward”; plus a research lab situated above a furnace room.
Indeed, if one was looking to split hairs, a fourth quasi-campus could be found at St. Margaret’s Hospital in Kansas City, Kansas, where final-year medical students saw patients and received instruction two mornings each week.
If this wasn’t complex, confusing or just plain exasperating enough, the new Bell Memorial Hospital technically wasn’t even solely a hospital, since it also functioned as the Medical School’s Administration Building. A vast improvement over its Goat Hill predecessors, it was nonetheless called upon to accommodate not only hospital beds and sophisticated medical equipment, but also classrooms and offices, too – and as such, its clinical and research facilities were decidedly minimal.
Not surprisingly, then, for the KU School of Medicine, the decades that followed the third Bell Memorial Hospital’s 1924 opening were ones of wildly divergent fortunes. There were years defined by contentious, politically motivated feuds and deep-seated internal tensions; periods of crippling Depression-era hardships and shoestring budgets, not to mention the enormous dislocations associated with the Second World War.
On the other hand, the institution also experienced stretches of remarkable prosperity; the steady enlargement of its physical plant, particularly in terms of clinical and laboratory space; and the eventual consolidation of the entire School on the 39th and Rainbow campus.
Indeed, whereas once its leaders had to beg for funds and regularly justify the School’s existence, now, annually, they could proudly point to the innumerable contributions made to the good health and welfare of Kansans statewide.
It was, in fact, in this celebratory spirit – reflecting on a half-century of faithful service – that the KU School of Medicine christened what would become its fourth and final Bell Memorial Hospital. On May 18, 1979, more than 2,000 people gathered in Kansas City, Kansas, for the new $58 million facility’s dedication. Encompassing 850,000 square feet, it effectively doubled the size of campus.
Fittingly, the keynote speaker at this event was Dr. Franklin D. Murphy. The son of Dr. Franklin E. Murphy, an original Medical School faculty member who had been present at the third Bell Memorial’s creation back in 1924, the younger Murphy had led the School of Medicine for three years as dean in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He then went on to serve nine years as chancellor of the University as a whole. (Incidentally, the very structure that this fourth Bell Memorial Hospital was replacing would, in 1983, be renamed the Murphy Administration Building in his honor.)
The new hospital that Murphy helped dedicate would also be renamed, becoming the University of Kansas Hospital later in 1979. The changes in the medical industry over the next 20 years would lead to other significant changes at the hospital, including how the hospital was governed.
Fittingly, the personal legacy of Dr. Simeon Bishop Bell and the memoriam to his first wife may gain something of a public revival. Later in 2005, plans call for the Eleanor Taylor Building, now housing Information Resources and Medical Information Management, to be rededicated as Eleanor Taylor Bell. The original bronze plaque that once hung on old Bell Memorial Hospital will be remounted on the present-day structure.
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas