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Walter S. Sutton, MD: A Genius Goes To War

Nancy Hulston, MA
Adjunct Associate Professor of the History of Medicine and Archivist
University of Kansas School of Medicine

Walter Stanborough Sutton was born on April 5, 1877, in Utica, New York, the fifth son of Judge William B. Sutton and Agnes Black Sutton. In 1886, the Sutton family moved to Russell County, Kansas, and in 1897 relocated to Kansas City, Kansas.

Sutton enrolled in the University of Kansas School of Engineering in September, 1896 and in June, 1897, he returned home for summer vacation. Within days every member of the family was stricken by typhoid fever. All survived except for his seventeen year old brother John. This experience affected Sutton profoundly, and is credited with his later interest in the practice of medicine. Upon returning to Lawrence in the fall of 1897, Sutton switched from engineering to biology in preparation for medical school. In 1898, he joined K.U’s first basketball team, coached by James Naismith, the man who “invented” basketball.

1898-99 KU Basketball Team, Walter Sutton in center; brother Will, team captain holding ball
1898-99 KU Basketball Team, Walter Sutton in center; brother Will, team captain holding ball

Sutton received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1900, and a Master of Arts degree in zoology from the University of Kansas in 1901. His master’s thesis, “On the Morphology of the Chromosome Group in Brachystola Magna,” published in the Kansas University Quarterly in 1902, postulated that chromosomes carry the units of inheritance. He enrolled at Columbia University in New York in the fall of 1901 on a fellowship for post-graduate study, where he worked under Professor Edmund Beecher Wilson, a pioneer in the study of cell lineage. Beecher quickly recognized Sutton’s keen scientific abilities. In 1903, Sutton published “The Chromosomes in Heredity,” in the Biological Bulletin ,V.4, (Woods Hole, MA). This work, explaining “Why the Yellow Dog is Yellow,” is still considered one of the primary landmarks in biological literature.

Sutton completed his medical education at Columbia University. He proved a superb medical student and, upon graduation in 1907, secured a coveted two-year surgical fellowship at Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. He returned to his family in Kansas City, Kansas, in 1909, and opened a surgical practice in the Rialto Building in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. He joined the faculty of the four-year-old University of Kansas School of Medicine at Rosedale, Kansas, as an assistant professor of surgery. In 1911, Sutton was promoted to associate professor, and in May1911 he joined the United States Army Medical Reserve Corps as a first lieutenant.

Walter Sutton in military uniform
Walter Sutton in military uniform

Dr. Sutton took military leave on February 8, 1915, to head the surgical staff of the Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney Unit of the American Ambulance Hospital in the small village of Juilly, France. When Sutton arrived at the hospital, a 16th century seminary renovated in 1914, it had few modern conveniences and primitive facilities for surgical operations. There, Sutton quickly became skilled in war surgery, later recounting, “You would hardly believe it, but we had wounded men who were never struck by bullets or projectiles from the enemy’s guns. We had men wounded by being pierced with the shattered bones of their comrades. Men were blown to pieces and parts of their bodies acted as projectiles, killing and wounding others.”

Ambulance motorcade enroute to the Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney Unit near Juilly, France
Ambulance motorcade enroute to the Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney Unit near Juilly, France

Sutton, in correspondence to his Mother, described Juilly, twenty-three miles north of Paris, as a small village of two-hundred inhabitants located about forty miles from the front. Sutton assured her that they were not in danger of being “involved in hostilities.” Ford ambulances from the Compiegne evacuation hospital transported patients to Juilly every other day. In March of 1915 the hospital contained 115 patients; its capacity was 150.

Medical staff playing baseball 1915, Juilly , France, photo by Sutton
Medical staff playing baseball 1915, Juilly , France, photo by Sutton

The center of the Battle of the Marne was near, and Sutton planned to visit it to “collect relics.” This epic battle, conducted September 6-12, 1914, brought to an end the war of movement that had dominated World War I since early August. Stalemate and trench warfare then ensued until The Armistice in November 1918.

When the Ambulance Hospital at Juilly was first put into commission in 1915, improvements such as electricity, plumbing, steam heat, and kitchen facilities were quickly added. As for mealtimes Sutton declared, “The patients are fed as I think soldiers were never fed before and as for ourselves we can hardly believe it is a war time as our meals are a constant joy.” While in France, Sutton’s inventive capabilities came into play. He developed a system of x-ray localization that allowed surgeons to pinpoint bullets and shell fragments with a fluoroscopic x-ray screen.

Medical staff at Juilly, France with Sutton 3rd from right
Medical staff at Juilly, France with Sutton 3rd from right

By the middle of March 1915, Sutton wrote that he had 44 patients in his exclusive care; mostly surgery cases suffering shrapnel injuries. As dry weather approached he expected increased troop movement and fighting to bring in more casualties. After a visit to Compienge, Sutton described the hospital there as a former palace built by Louis XIV, and a favorite vacation residence of Napoleon I. The walls were punctured with holes to accommodate temporary stove pipes, and the beds and other accoutrements were the remnants of once opulent royal furnishings. The fighting there had been recent and he saw the ugliness of destroyed homes, walls torn down, and many abandoned trenches. Returning to Juilly, Sutton recognized the beauty of nature and stopped “to pick bunches of daffodils which are just now announcing the beginning of the early French spring.”

In April 1915, Sutton wrote that casualties at his hospital were increasing, with ambulances transporting patients to Juilly every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. On top of that, the hospital was also accepting civilian patients as there were no local doctors or facilities available.

Sutton returned to Kansas City on July 1, 1915, and reported back to work at K.U.’s Bell Memorial Hospital on July 16, where he resumed teaching and performing surgery. His experiences at the Whitney Ambulance Hospital provided material for a chapter on war surgery in the Manual of Operative Surgery by his surgical colleague, John F. Binnie, M.D.

Dr. Sutton poses for a photograph
Dr. Sutton poses for a photograph

In late October, 1916, Sutton signed a contract with the C.V. Moseby Co. to publish a book on general surgery. Sadly, this was not to be, however, as he died from complications of appendicitis on November 10, 1916, at the age of thirty-nine.

The background information and images are from The Archives of the University of Kansas Medical Center.

Last modified: Jul 26, 2018
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