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How polio, iron lungs and Clarke Wescoe changed patient care at KU Medical Center

February 23, 2017

By Greg Peters

Clarke Wescoe, 1952
Dean Clarke Wescoe in his office in 1952.

Every day, hundreds walk by the non-descript entryways to the Eaton Building on the University of Kansas Medical Center campus. Doctors, nurses, faculty and students pass by fully unaware of the important secrets that the 77-year-old structure keeps regarding the history of desegregation at the medical center.

Other than the ornate "Eaton Ward" chiseled into the stone atop the old entryway visible from the cafeteria of The University of Kansas Hospital, the dark red-brick building looks just like any other of the aging structures on the urban campus. But if the walls could talk, what a story the Eaton Building could tell about a time when a young medical school dean, Jim Crow segregation and the dreaded polio outbreak of the 1950s came together to change the way doctors and patients of all races would interact in the future.

Back in the day

Completed in 1940 by the Works Progress Administration, the Eaton Building was erected specifically for black patients, and at one time a sign reading "Negro Ward" was located above the entryway. The building was part of a pact between the Kansas governor and KU officials allowing blacks to earn their medical degrees from KU. In 1941, Edward Vernon Williams became the first Africa-American student to graduate.

Officially, Kansas was considered a "color blind" state, but vestiges of the separate-but-equal doctrine lingered, including Eaton and its segregated population. KU administrators had long acquiesced to the notion that patients, particularly well-to-do whites from the Jim Crow state of Missouri, would not tolerate being treated alongside black patients. Historian Joe Vaughan, who grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, said the Rosedale neighborhood, where KU Medical Center is located, tended to align more closely politically with its neighbor state to the east than it did with Kansas.

At age 32, Clarke Wescoe, M.D., became dean of the KU School of Medicine in 1952, and shortly thereafter ran headlong into the issue of segregation. Wescoe had been recruited by Franklin Murphy the year before to come to KU from Cornell University Medical College. Wescoe, who hadn't previously seen segregation first-hand, was one of a growing number of faculty and staff who thought the time had come for change.

In "The Kansas School of Medicine: Eyewitness Reflections On Its Formative Years," Wescoe recalled being visited by a delegation from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) of Kansas City, Kansas, in the fall of 1952. The group pointed out the evils of segregation and how the separate-but-equal hospital ward inside the Eaton Building was among the greatest of their concerns. Wescoe told them he would address the issue, but he needed time.

History plays its hand

This is where history takes a twist as circumstances forced the hands of both sides of the race issue to work together against a common foe. Shortly after the NAACP visit, the state suffered a severe outbreak of poliomyelitis, and the worst cases were sent to KU Medical Center.

"I remember the polio outbreak, particularly in the late 1940s and late war years," said Wyandotte County historian Loren Taylor. "I remember as a kid seeing the polio stickers and warning placards on the houses, and talking about it in school. It was pretty worrisome for a kid growing up."

The outbreak provided Wescoe with his opportunity. Because Eaton was the only building with large enough wards to house the "iron lung machines" for polio patients, adult black and white patients were cared for alongside each other. Eight to 10 iron lungs were placed close enough together that a limited staff could treat the patients. For the first time, patients of both races were cared for together.

"We didn't care if a patient in a respirator was black or white, that's where the respiratory center was, and that's where they got taken care of," Wescoe recalled in 1990.

But caring for polio patients wasn't without peril.

"One of the ENT residents and I had to do a tracheotomy on a little kid who was in an iron lung," recalled R. Don Blim, M.D., who finished medical school at KU in 1953 and was also an intern and resident at KU Medical Center. "The child vomited in my face. The head of infectious disease wanted me to get some gamma globulin because I had been heavily exposed. I got the gamma globulin, and I didn't get polio."

Blim later worked with Lewis Bass, the first black pediatric resident at KU Medical Center, who later became an assistant professor of pediatrics before serving as clinical director of the Children and Youth Project at the medical center.

"I remember my boss, Herb Miller, came to me and said, 'We're going to have a black resident, and I want you to take care of him.' That was no problem. We got along fine. Louie Bass was a wonderful guy and a good friend."

'You can't have it both ways'

Shortly after the polio outbreak subsided, Wescoe received another visit from the NAACP. This time, however, they wanted to know why he had taken away their hospital.

"You asked for desegregation, and we have it," Wescoe recounted. "You can't have it both ways. 'The dean is absolutely right,'" Roosevelt Butler, the group's leader responded. "'Let us go.'"

And with that, the meeting ended.

Even after a polio vaccine was developed and iron lungs faded from the scene, Wescoe stuck to his promise, and Eaton remained integrated. Nurseries were soon desegregated and integration continued to spread throughout KU Medical Center. By decade's end it was fully integrated.

"This was an important moment of progress in the history of KU Medical Center," said Jamie Rees, curator of the Clendening Museum of Medicine at KU Medical Center. "Dean Wescoe chose patient care and public health over prejudice, giving all people access to the treatments they needed. This was just one step in the history of desegregation of the rest of the country - but in the same way that a ripple is just the beginning of a wave."

Voices from the past

Recollections from the days of polio and integration at the medical center have faded. Many of the participants have died and archival records from the time are limited. Wescoe went on to become KU's chancellor in 1960 where he continued to face civil rights issues. Buildings have been razed and new ones erected, while countless memories have been plastered over, so much so that a visitor from the past would barely recognize the inside of buildings like Eaton.

Many of those who walk the stone-tiled corridor inside the building bearing Wescoe's name today pay little notice to the photographs from the medical center's black-and-white past that line the walls. While most of the voices from the era of segregation have gone silent, if the walls of Wescoe and Eaton could talk, they might spin a yarn about a time when polio, race and a young dean of medicine came together to change history.

Read more about Clarke Wescoe and the history of KU Medical Center

Last modified: Jul 26, 2018