Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Cutting a Wide Swat

(News-Herald, November 2000) I have long wondered how the name "Venango" made it to western communities in Nebraska and Kansas. Some folks have suggested that the Indians might have taken it west. The Ottawas, for instance, are noted in one source as ranging as faar eaast as Venango, Pennsylvania, and as far west as Kansas and Oklahoma. (They also lived at Mackinac Island in Michigan, giving us a slim but usable excuse to hold our qualifying round for Mackinac Island's stone skipping nationals.)

I have trouble accepting this explanation because "Venango" is usually presented as non-Native Americans' best guess at rendering a Native American word. So the search goes on. But while searching, I turned up something else. Let me introduce you to Samuel J. Crumbine.

Crumbine was born here in Venango County in 1862. As a young boy he would sit and watch local pharmacists mix various cures and practical medicine. At age 8, young Samuel was admitted to the Mercer Soldiers Orphan School. The interest in doctoring never left him; he eventually enrolled in the Cincinnati School of Medicine and Surgery, where he tried to make ends meet by distributing handbills for patent medicine. But after a year, he was out of money.

Crumbine headed west to seek his fortune, or at least enough fortune to finish medical school. By 1885 he had landed in Dodge City. His training and experience made him the most medically knowledgeable man in the neighborhood, so he opened up a practice. That put Crumbine in Dodge City at the same time as Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp. It was still rough territory, but Crumbine must have liked it because he went back to Cincinnati, finished med school, married, and returned with his wife to Dodge City.

Apparently Dr. Crumbine cut quite a figure out West. The "young feisty" doctor would appear in his Prince Albert coat, packing a six-shooter. Says a source, "he bullied his patients into good health habits, scolded victims of gunshot wounds (Why didn't you duck?), and generally earned the respect and loyalty of the townspeople."

But our native son's career as Kansas public health crusader was only beginning. His first crusade was to convince Fred Harvey's Diner in Dodge City to stop serving milk from an open pitcher. Small potatoes, you may say, but every crusader has to start somewhere.

Dr. Crumbine opposed pesthouses, the practice of putting victims of communicable diseases (like smallpox) in a building to recover (or not) while everyone else in town was quarantined in their own homes. This was hard on both public health and the economy (though the day after Thanksgiving might be pretty pleasant if everyone were required by law to stay home).

His stand against pesthouses led to a job as the head of the Kansas Public Health Board. In that job he pioneered food and drug testing. We take this sort of protection for granted, but back at the turn of the century Dr. Crumbine's department was discovering that one cure for "all nervous troubles" was 75% alcohol; another cure for several diseases had turpentine for its active ingredient.

But it was in his next crusade that Dr. Crumbine made his greatest mark. Noting the connection between houseflies and typhoid documented in the Spanish-American War, he decided to rid Kansas of the little pests. "Swat the fly" was the campaign slogan, and it brought out of the woodwork a teacher named Frank Rose who showed Crumbine his new invention: a yardstick with a mesh square mounted on the end. With clearly too much free time and too little gift for language, Rose had named it a "fly bat." Crumbine amended that to "fly swatter" and its immortality was assured.

The doctor also promoted the use of those little cone-shaped paper cups to stop the spread of tuberculosis from common public drinking cups. He took on the crime boss of Kansas City, threatening to quarantine the whole town to stop the spread of venereal disease, and generally annoyed politicians so much that he was eventually forced to resign. He moved on to run the American Child Health Association. There's an award given in his name every year.

Now Johnny Appleseed lived here very briefly and then went on to become a famous American loon. Here's a guy who was born and raised (a bit) here and who went on to do great things. If Johnny rates Applefest, surely Dr. Crumbine deserves a festival of his own, a giant fly-swatting festival. I can see it now; a giant fly swatter poised over Liberty Street, giant fly pageants, fly races, fly cooking contests-- I think the tourism promotion folks had better get on this right away.

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