Don’t Spit on the Sidewalk, and Use Your Flyswatter.

Dr. Sam Crumbine was the secretary of the Kansas State Board of Health from 1904 to about 1924. He was an early adopter of Germ Theory, the idea that tiny organisms were the cause of many diseases. At the time, it was a very controversial theory. Doctors and researchers found organisms responsible for diseases like influenza, cholera, diptheria, measles, mumps, chicken pox and smallpox. Some of these diseases are regarded as “childhood diseases” today, but 100 years ago, thousands of children and adults died from these diseases every year.

Crumbine applied germ theory to the diseases affecting Kansas communities. He realized that germs could be transmitted by common surfaces (does this sound

A red clay brick with the words "Dont Spit on Sidewalk" engraved across the top

Artist Unknown
“Don’t Spit On Sidewalk” brick
early 20th century
ceramic
TSCPL Permanent Collection,
Gift of the Menninger Foundation 2003.003.042

familiar?) Trying to change human behavior proved difficult, then as now. In the era before indoor plumbing was common, handwashing was sometimes tricky. Hand sanitizer did not yet exist.

 

Spitting was common, especially in the age when chewing tobacco was more popular than today. Crumbine knew that germs were in saliva, and had cities build in reminder bricks to discourage spitting on sidewalks. The library has one of these in our collection.

Crumbine pushed to outlaw things that were likely to be germ vectors. At train stations, for instance, it was common to have a pail or water, or a well, with a shared drinking cup. Bathrooms often had a long cloth towel that rolled into a holder, and people pulled out a section to dry their hands. People shared a common comb in bathrooms and train stations, which could transmit lice. Crumbine observed that flies would land in outhouses, then fly to tables where food was being served, carrying germs. He commissioned a schoolteacher from Topeka to design something to kill flies. A small piece of screen with a long handle served the purpose. The flyswatter was invented in Topeka! (We’re very proud.) Crumbine also offered a “bounty” for children who brought in the bodies of dead flies.

When the United States entered World War I, Fort Riley was a major hub for soldiers on their way to Europe. Crumbine saw an increase in sexually transmitted diseases around the base, and asked his nurses to help educate women and prostitutes in the area about how to recognize avoid them. This proved to be incendiary; many people did not like Crumbine’s work to protect people who were engaging in what they regarded as sinful activities.

In 1918, a shipment of pigs arrived at Fort Riley. Some of the pigs were sick, and started dying. Soon, people started getting sick. Ironically, after a career of health observation and action, Crumbine did not realize the severity of this new influenza strain. Soldiers deploying to Europe carried the virus, and the first large-scale infection incident that hit the news was in Spain. This influenza strain became known as the Spanish Flu. It was not traced back to Fort Riley until decades later.
Sam Crumbine’s legacy of public health is recognized with the Sam Crumbine Medal. This award is presented to people in health care who have made major contributions to public health. The library is honored to hold three of these in our collection. One was presented to Dr. Karl Menninger, one to Dr. Will Menninger, and one to Robert Harder, who served as Kansas Secretary of State abd was a member of the Library Board of Trustees.

Round bronze medallion with a portrait of a man's face (Dr. Samuel Crumbine)

Medallic Art Company
Samuel J. Crumbine Medal, awarded to Dr. Karl A. Menninger
1955
bronze
TSCPL Permanent Collection,
Gift of the Menninger Foundation 2003.027.043

Round bronze medal with portrait of Dr. Samuel Crumbine

Medallic Art Company Samuel J. Crumbine Medal, awarded to Dr. Will C. Menninger 1955 bronze TSCPL Permanent Collection, Gift of the Menninger Foundation 2003.027.044

Round bronze medal with a portrait of a man (Dr. Samuel Crumbine) in a rectangular presentation box

Medallic Art Company Samual Crumbine Medal for Meritorious Service in Public Health 1993 bronze TSCPL Permanent Collection, Gift of Robert C. Harder 2011.006

 

6 thoughts on “Don’t Spit on the Sidewalk, and Use Your Flyswatter.

  1. dawn-buttery on said:

    Interesting read, I love stories like this about historical people and events.

  2. Natalie Allen on said:

    my elementary school had one of those towels that you dry your hands on and just pull when you need. i remember it was the prettiest shade of dark blue

  3. Betty Neal on said:

    Eventually he did take action once the flu spread to civilians. He even closed the bridge to Missouri because he had ordered closing in Kansas and Missouri businesses were open. Too many men were going to Missouri for the bars. (You can read about it in the Topeka Room in my paper).
    I even have a mini-brick magnet that has the slogan on it.

  4. Sherry Best on said:

    Betty Jean, when we reopen, I will! Thank you for telling me about your paper. Is it in the Sam Crumbine vertical file?

  5. Betty Neal on said:

    Here is the information for finding it.
    Topeka Room – Nonfiction
    TR 978.1 NEA