Jason C. Flay: We can rise again to beat public health challenge
We sacrificed to fight the outbreak of disease, but many Kansans think of these measures as limiting their freedom. After all, shouldn’t we be able to spit on the sidewalk and use the public drinking cups? And isn’t my hygiene, in my own kitchen, my business?
A hundred years later, we still think the same way. Back then, despite some resistance, we listened to an expert and defeated an enemy. At the time Dr. Samuel Crumbine came to Dodge City, Kansas tuberculosis was ravaging the United States. He asked a generation of Kansans to change, and they did. We can do it again.
Tuberculosis struck suddenly and with devastating results. It did not see race, gender or age, and for many, it was a death sentence. My own grandfather was orphaned in the 1920s because of “consumption.”
Despite the widely known dangers of the disease, many people did not take the steps necessary to prevent not only catching the disease but spreading it to others. When the young Dr. Crumbine moved from Pennsylvania to Ford County to practice his medical trade in 1888, the development of the cure for tuberculosis was still a half century away.
His modern approach to medical treatment propelled him to eventually serving as secretary of the Kansas Board of Health for 20 years starting in 1904. During his tenure, in addition to the virulent tuberculosis, he also faced the epicenter of the Spanish Flu, originating in an army training barracks in Haskell County, before lighting the world aflame.
One can imagine the skilled practitioner frustrated at the public’s reaction to devastating disease management. On one occasion, he saw a mother use a public drinking cup for herself and her child without rinsing it first. Germ theory was a widely accepted idea by the beginning of the 20th century, so to flagrantly flout accepted scientific knowledge was not only irresponsible but negligent during a time of widespread disease.
To combat the unseen enemy, Dr. Crumbine waged war. The weapons in his war was the promotion of sanitation, pure food and drugs, the eradication of pests and the elimination of spitting in public places.
The latter resulted in the creation of “Don’t Spit on the Sidewalk” bricks. The bricks installed throughout Kansas even gained popularity throughout cities across the country. These simple signs asked the population to refrain from spitting to help prevent disease. One cannot imagine that many saw these requests as totalitarian, or an overreach of personal freedoms, but a request to make a change in personal behavior for the benefit of others.
A century on and the specter of tuberculosis is all but gone here, and though the strain that caused the “Spanish Influenza” still kills 20,000 Americans every year, it is a far cry from the 675,000 deaths in the first year.
Medical professionals have asked over and over throughout our current epidemic to change our behaviors ever so little, to make sacrifices far less then the service men and women we will never meet.
Together we can beat the new unseen enemy by doing what we as Americans do best and make a sacrifice for those around us who are not strong enough to fight. Wear masks, keep apart, take the vaccine when it is offered, and we will prevail. We did it before. We can do it again.
Jason C. Flay is a 2005 alum of the University of Kansas. He is a resident of Paris, Kentucky, where he is an archaeologist and president of Acheulean Consulting.