In 1903, 36 years after the arrival of the first physician in Wichita, the Medical Society of Sedgwick County was formed by 25 local doctors.
During the following years and decades, MSSC physicians treated the sick and injured, built hospitals, initiated public health campaigns and stopped epidemics. This work continues today.
MSSC is recognizing its 120th anniversary with historical items in the MSSC News throughout the year.
Nationally known artist created bust of pioneering Kansas physician
A bronze bust of pioneering Wichita physician Andrew H. Fabrique watches over the lobby of the MSSC offices at 1102 S. Hillside, starting conversations and sometimes startling employees with its lifelike scale and imposing features.
The 96-year-old artwork is more than a treasured piece of Wichita medical history. It also reflects the early genius of Bruce Moore, a local artist who would make a mark far beyond Kansas with his sculptures and drawings of human and animal figures.
Fabrique was born in Harrison County, Indiana, in 1842. He moved to Wichita in 1869 and started a medical practice. In those early days, he often traveled miles into the country on horseback to treat a patient or deliver a baby. Surgeries were often done on the kitchen table with crude instruments and kerosene lamps for light.
Over the years, Fabrique learned new medical techniques and developed close ties to the medical school at Northwestern University. Interns from Northwestern came to Wichita to work with Fabrique.
Howard C. Clark, MD, wrote of Fabrique in “A History of the Sedgwick County Medical Society” that “there is no doubt that he blazed the trail for modern medicine in Wichita – in fact, the State of Kansas – and did more than any man of his time to bring good medicine to his state.”
Moore, born in Bern, Kansas, moved with his family to Wichita at age 12 and was encouraged by local artists such as Ed Davison and C.A. Seward before winning a place in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts at 17.
Moore is best known in Wichita for his ornamental exterior details at North High School and his lyrical “Girl and Fawn” outside Mark Arts. But he also designed the snarling bronze tigers on the Princeton campus and the “General Billy Mitchell” statue at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. His work includes the 30-foot Columbia figure at the National Memorial of the Pacific in Honolulu and bronze doors at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. He also designed pieces for Steuben Glass, including cups and vases for Queen Elizabeth II and President Eisenhower.
Moore was just 21 in March 1927 when the Medical Society, meeting at the Lassen Hotel, named a committee to explore the idea to commemorate the life and work of Fabrique. In the MSSC minutes, “statue” is crossed out and “Bronze Bust” written in.
Just two weeks later, “the doctors had raised more money than was needed for the Bust,” according to the minutes. No price was noted.
That April, the Eagle reported that Moore had opened a studio at 1st and Broadway where he was working on a bust of Fabrique that “even in its early stages strikingly portrays the massive, rugged head of that veteran physician.” The doctor reportedly urged Moore to capture how a “drunken and wounded cowboy” once had taken a shot at him and “nipped off the top of an ear” – a noticeable detail.
The plaque on the pedestal says the bust was created by Moore for “Fab’s Boys” – the young interns drawn to Wichita to work with the self-made physician who had helped establish St. Francis hospital. He died May 10, 1928.
Over the years, Moore taught at the future WSU and in New York City and Maryland. He died in 1980. Four years later, WAM and the Art Association honored him with a retrospective exhibition of more than 240 of his sculptures, drawings and lithographs. Noting Moore’s ability to capture the living spirit of whatever he was portraying, a Smithsonian curator once told the Eagle: “He was a sculptor’s sculptor.”
MSSC was not the first medical society in Wichita
Though MSSC was founded 120 years ago, it was not the first medical society in Wichita. Pioneering physician Andrew H. Fabrique organized the Wichita Pathological Society in 1888. Various other societies also were formed soon thereafter, including the Wichita City Medical Society, the South Kansas Medical Society and the Wichita Academy of Medicine.
In 1903, an organizer for the American Medical Association came to Kansas to reorganize the Kansas Medical Society and county societies. According to “A History of the Medical Society of Sedgwick County,” the organizer “met with several physicians in Wichita and declared that the Academy of Medicine was most unreasonable, and that it had more friendly enemies than he had seen in similar setups in other cities.” There were frequent disputes between physicians associated with the city’s two hospitals at that time, Wichita Hospital and St. Francis Hospital.
The Wichita Academy of Medicine met and debated whether to create a new society. Though some members objected and threatened to sue, the majority agreed to form the Sedgwick County Medical Society.
There were 25 charter members of the society, and 19 new members joined during the first year. Dues were $3 per year, and weekly meetings were held at the Chamber of Commerce. After each meeting, the members adjourned to a back room for “a smoker.” Meeting minutes showed approval for the keg of beer consumed at the previous meeting.
MSSC doctors led war on dirty milk in early days
MSSC has looked out for citizens’ health throughout its 120-year history. One big fight was over “the awful menace of dirty and diseased milk,” as the Wichita Beacon put it.
In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt’s surgeon general had attributed most childhood deaths to impure milk. By 1915, Wichita parents sought pure milk for their babies, and had trouble finding it.
Doctors wanted to require, among other rules, that udders be washed with clean water before milking, that bottles and cans be sterilized between uses, that milk be analyzed regularly for bacteria, and that manure be piled away from barns. Violators would be fined $20 or more for each offense.
“No milk should be sold from cows diseased in any way,” said Dr. Fred Williams, speaking on behalf of the society.
A pro-ordinance petition drew 1,500 signatures in one morning. The city physician, Leon Matassarin, called for pastors to speak about pure milk from their pulpits, and said he “would like to see 500 babies brought to City Hall” for the city commission vote.
A sign posted in MSSC’s downtown building went further: “War! Call to Arms. All true and good citizens should join our army for fresh air, pure water, pure and clean milk, pure food sold in sanitary grocery stores, pure and wholesome food cooked and served in clean restaurants by clean and healthy cooks and waiters.”
Dairymen and their defenders on the city commission expressed doubts that cases of typhoid fever and tuberculosis were due to impure milk and argued that required dairy upgrades and testing would hike milk prices. “Which is worse? The chance of starvation or chance of germs?” asked one producer.
The ordinance passed Nov. 18, 1915, but without physicians’ insistence that cows be tested for tuberculosis once a year.
One city commissioner said the amount of bacteria in milk didn’t matter to laymen. Matassarin was fired amid the dispute, during which physicians described the city commissioners as “mossbacks” and “double crossers” who belonged to the stone age.
Milk pasteurization, a heating process to destroy pathogens, would become routine by the 1920s. MSSC members would help draft and pass a stricter ordinance in 1932.
MSSC building also has a long history at site and in service
As MSSC’s 50th anniversary approached in the early 1950s, the society sought a building of its own, and would follow physicians in moving out of the downtown core.
A building committee scouted the near-east side of Wichita and settled on an offer by the Sisters of St. Joseph to lease the land at what would become 1102 S. Hillside. Membership dues were increased by $50 a year to help cover architect Robert Mayberry’s estimated $65,000 project. Ground was broken in February 1954.
MSSC took pride in the opening of its home that Oct. 24, touting in newspaper ads and articles that its auditorium was equipped to show both movies and slides and its medical library was stocked with 15 tons of periodicals going back 35 years.
“It is not unusual to check out to a doctor as many as 15 different articles on a single subject,” reported the Wichita Eagle.
When the 5,400-square-foot building was new, at an eventual cost of $100,000, MSSC had 285 active members and 23 standing committees assigned to such diverse concerns as tuberculosis and venereal disease control and disaster readiness.
Much has changed about the facility as well as the society. The library and meeting hall were converted to office space for MSSC and its multiplying affiliates. The active membership is up to more than 1,000 and the committees down to six.
What was its Medical Service Bureau has become Cairn Health, a separate nonprofit now at 1514 N. Broadway that helps poor and uninsured clients with prescription and optical vouchers and other resources.
Four years ago, MSSC’s homeownership became complete when it bought the property at 1102 S. Hillside and further updated the facility.
World Wars altered medical community
MSSC’s 120-year history has seen two World Wars alter the medical community in Wichita dramatically, if not permanently.
Thirty of the 65 members of the society were away in fall 1918. The only full-time physician at the Red Cross’ emergency flu hospital departed for military duty even as cases multiplied and public gatherings were canceled. A record 194 local deaths were recorded that October, most from Spanish flu or pneumonia.
When specialists among the remaining physicians were ordered by the government that month to do general practice, Dr. J. Grey Dorsey, a former society president (and an eye specialist), told the Wichita Eagle: “I guess we will have to work about 36 hours a day.” Fortunately, Armistice Day would come Nov. 11.
Then Wichita’s population doubled during World War II to more than 200,000 because of aircraft production, overcrowding hospitals and straining medical supplies.
At the same time, as many as a third of MSSC members were called away to serve – “the young, active, energetic, highly educated and specialized physicians with a vision and a hope for the future of medicine,” as a 40th-anniversary MSSC review described them.
A community that had one doctor for every 700 residents before the war soon saw demand rise to 2,000 residents per doctor. Night appointments and surgeries became necessary.
Society President Dr. Charles Rombold predicted in 1942 that physicians would handle the challenge because “much of our lives already is predicated on self-denial, service and devotion to an ideal.”
MSSC’s executive secretary, Jack Austin, was called up right after Pearl Harbor and later killed on stateside maneuvers. Members wrote letters to MSSC describing their experiences in Germany, the South Pacific and North Africa.
Those members on the home front served on the Selective Service medical examining boards and supported war bond drives and Community Chest campaigns. MSSC coordinated the physicals of 41,000 defense employees and worked with local leaders on public health and disaster planning.
During both wars, the Medical Society placed newspaper ads asking patients to be vaccinated, and to try to prevent accidents and otherwise help their doctor meet the demands on his time.
“He is human and cannot do his best work if you deprive him of rest and sleep by calling on him at all hours to do work that should be done in his regular working hours,” one 1918 ad said.
“No other group – business, professional or otherwise – on whom the public as a whole depends so greatly has been called upon so heavily for active military service,” said one 1944 ad.
As World War II ended, the society purchased more newspaper ads – variously announcing the return to civilian practice of its members.
Cairn Health hired Amber Beck as its new executive director. She will oversee operations and lead the nonprofit organization, which provides low-income people with vouchers for prescription medication and low-cost vision care.
Cairn, which was previously known as “Medical Service Bureau,” was established in 1937 by a group of MSSC physicians and nurses.
Tuberculosis was an early challenge for MSSC
Tuberculosis was among the first diseases to spur the Medical Society of Sedgwick County to action. It turned out to be a long effort.
A Topeka-based “field agent” for tuberculosis prevention met with MSSC, city and county leaders in 1913, recommending measures such as school ventilation and condemning the local “spitting nuisance.” She told the Wichita Beacon: “They tell me it is largely prevented here but I had to raise my skirts several times in the post office.”
As the numbers of cases of the airborne bacterial disease rose to 22 in 1916, the society assisted the county in erecting a TB tent colony on a farm southeast of town. (No Wichitans wanted the patients to be cared for within city limits.)
For the more permanent sanatorium that opened on the farm Dec. 26, 1916, MSSC appointed a medical staff and saw to patients’ treatment, donating both care and financial support.
The Wichita Eagle wrote in May 1917 of the first three patients treated successfully: “They are as strong and healthy as they were before the white plague fastened its grip upon them” — using the 19th-century nickname inspired by the victims’ pallor.
The camp quickly grew from nine to 21 bungalows, plus an administration building. Nurses and attendants were challenged to care for patients, one per bungalow and 30 feet apart, in blizzard and other harsh conditions. The first year saw seven deaths, but most patients left either fully recovered or well enough to return home.
The county operated a TB sanatorium until 1952, with patient totals peaking at 60 in 1936 but down to eight by 1951.
The Medical Society partnered with the health department in the 1950s to screen for TB, and coordinated testing and free X-ray checks with the Wichita Tuberculosis Association through the 1960s. By then, the 45 cases a year could be treated successfully with antibiotics and without long hospital stays.
The county continues to see about 11 new clients diagnosed with TB each year, though state data show only 12 TB deaths in Sedgwick County from 2000 through 2020.
Vignettes from MSSC’s history
- “Sedgwick County Medical society meets tonight at usual place. Subject, ‘Adenoids.’” – Item in the Wichita Daily Eagle, Sept. 25, 1905.
- An entry in an MSSC minutes book dated Dec. 1, 1908, reports: “Minutes of this meeting quarantined with Dr. Hagan and probably destroyed for sanitary purposes.” No further explanation was recorded.
- The cases discussed at the meeting of Sept. 20, 1910, included a pregnancy the doctor “thought had extended over almost eleven months” and another in which the baby, six weeks overdue, “weighed sixteen pounds on hay bales scales.”
- Early MSSC meetings weren’t all science and cigars. At the meeting of Jan. 31, 1911, according to the minutes, a member “in a very enjoyable manner entertained the society with recitation of some original verses.” On Oct. 7, 1930, “Dr. Graves recited a poem, ‘Hippocrates Jones,’ one of his own composition.” On Jan. 20, 1931, Dr. Lawrence Knox, a baritone who sang often around town and on KFH Radio, “rendered some very fine musical selections.” Dr. Knox sang again Dec. 15, 1931, at a meeting that also featured a seasonal reading and an address titled “Shakespeare’s Doctors.”
Women physicians have long history in Wichita, MSSC
by Maurice Duggins, MD
Women physicians may seem like a relatively modern occurrence, given the career and educational barriers women have faced. But half a dozen women practiced medicine in Wichita between 1875 and 1903, the year of the Medical Society of Sedgwick County’s founding.
One of the best-known early physicians was suffragist Dr. Nannie Stephens, who practiced in Wichita for 15 years. She moved to Kansas City in 1895 amid a notorious divorce that prompted The Wichita Eagle to declare: “It would seem that the girl who chooses a professional life should eschew matrimony ó motherhood.”
Dr. J. Ada St. John, who shared a 25-year practice with her husband, notably attended four home births on Christmas Day 1888. She later told the Eagle: “No matter how dark the night, how muddy the street or road, I could always take care of myself, just as well as a man doctor, and better than some of them.” She took care of even the poorest patients as well, sometimes noting in her ledger, “no father, no fee.”
Stephens, St. John and female colleagues including Dr. Mary Gage Day, who were members of the MSSC predecessor South Kansas Medical Society, promoted their medical practices in local newspaper ads through the 1880s and 1890s, sometimes touting “diseases of women a specialty.”
First woman MSSC member
The first woman to join MSSC may have been Dr. Sarah Noble, a 39-year-old Clearwater physician voted in on Jan. 18, 1910, with neither dissent nor fanfare, according to meeting minutes. Noble presented a paper at a May meeting before moving to Chicago that September.
Dr. Helen Moore, who joined MSSC in 1918 after moving to Wichita from Illinois, left for Topeka three years later to head the Kansas Bureau of Child Hygiene.
The first woman to make a durable mark on both the community and the society was surely Dr. Frances Schiltz, who joined MSSC in 1924. She was the first female intern at St. Francis Hospital and the first woman to serve as its chief of staff (1935). She also organized and directed women’s health services at then-Wichita University, and she was elected MSSC’s secretary for 1929-31 and vice president for 1946.
The MSSC roll book in the 1940s counts as members Schiltz and Dr. Ruth Montgomery-Short, Dr. Naomi Viscardi, Dr. Louise Ireland-Frey, Dr. Katherine Pennington, Dr. Ruth Page and Dr. Mildred R. Passmore.
First woman president
Still, by the late 1960s only 4% of MSSC members were women. It would take until 1985 for MSSC to elect a female president – Pennington, a pediatrician and the first female chief of staff at St. Joseph Hospital.
Pennington later reflected that she found few impediments for women in medicine, and that those who established practices during the war years were able to be seen simply as doctors, not just “women doctors.”
MSSC wouldn’t see another woman president until Dr. Linda Francisco’s 2011 term, followed by Dr. Donna Sweet (2014), Dr. Patricia Wyatt-Harris (2020) and Dr. E. Jeanne Kroeker (2022).
A 2020 research project based on oral histories of older MSSC women members found shared experiences of discrimination, harassment and unfair treatment, but few regrets. “All participants were attracted to medicine for altruistic reasons and encountered obstacles, discouragement, and even mockery in their efforts to become physicians. They met diverse challenges with determination, tenacity and hard work,” concluded authors Anne Walling, Kari Nilsen and Kimberly J. Templeton.
In 2023, as MSSC reaches the 120-year mark, more than one-third of its more than 1,000 active members are women, as are eight of its 13 board members and officers.
Women now make up more than 50% of medical students. As a result, the number of women physicians in Wichita will continue to grow – to the benefit of us all.
MSSC history includes major push against polio
Many diseases have motivated MSSC to community action over the past 120 years, from tuberculosis to smallpox to diphtheria to COVID-19. But no effort was bigger than the one targeting polio, the highly contagious virus capable of causing paralysis.
In June 1955, a year after a testing trial involving area second-graders, 110 MSSC members and 220 nurses volunteered to administer the Salk polio vaccine to 25,000 area children from public and parochial schools.
“Most of the city’s youngsters walked right up to the needle, turned their heads from the doctor, gritted their teeth and got the job over with,” the Wichita Beacon reported.
Then in late 1962 and early 1963, MSSC organized the campaign that immunized nearly 250,000 area residents with the three-dose Sabin vaccine. It took more than 2,000 volunteers working on three Sunday afternoons at 60 sites.
Called STOP, for Sedgwick County’s Triumph Over Polio, the drive mobilized police and sheriff’s personnel as well as planes to deliver the vaccine to nearly 80% of the county’s population. Another 12,000 residents had received the Sabin vaccine from their family physician earlier in 1962.
“This is not a handout from the Washington boys. This is the county at work as it should work,” said MSSC President Dr. George Gsell in 1962 ñ citing the local campaign to counter those who would socialize medicine.
As each child and adult lined up to receive the Sabin serum on a sugar cube, organizers asked for a 25-cent donation. About $93,000 was collected, paying for the vaccine vials and leaving $25,000 to fund science scholarships at then-University of Wichita.
“By swallowing a cube of sugar, a Sedgwick County resident will contribute his individual part to the mosaic of total immunity necessary for the health of the county, and he may save his own life, or his child’s or his grandchild’s,” Dr. G. Gayle Stephens, MSSC’s STOP chairman, said before the first 1962 clinic.
The numbers of polio cases in Sedgwick County proved the value of vaccination: 266 in 1952, 28 in 1956, 42 in 1959, four in 1961, then none.
By 1970, as the community launched a rubella vaccination drive, pediatrician and future MSSC President Dr. Katherine Pennington could call polio a “forgotten” disease.