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Archive for Friday, April 6, 2007

Never tranquil

The Kansas University Medical Center was born in an atmosphere of turmoil, and today’s struggles are only the latest in its troublesome history.

April 6, 2007

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A note from the Lawrence Daily World editorial page of exactly 100 years ago this month read: "Kansas University is trying to keep Missouri University from establishing a medical school in Kansas City. If worst comes to worst, the Jayhawker medics might go after the Tigers with needles and scalpels."

There was contention then, as there continues to be in 2007.

Now KU is trying to prevent interlopers across the border from siphoning off funds from the medical center and the KU Hospital operation and the handling of the effort to amalgamate has not been flattering to a number of the "Jayhawkers." If the arrangement is so outstanding and scintillating, why was so much of the groundwork laid in secrecy, with some of the most important people in the scenario kept in the dark until leaks began?

But the KU Medical Center has encountered one problem after another in the last century after having a terrible time even getting started.

KU historian John McCool recounts many of the growing pains in his outstanding series of writings for This Week in History for the university. You might think a private citizen would have been readily embraced more than 100 years ago when he made what amounted to a $75,000 offer for the medical school at a time when Kansas was badly cash-strapped.

Dr. Simeon Bishop Bell in 1894 tried to bestow the equivalent of that sum in real estate and cash to KU. He intended the gift to help create a new hospital and full-fledged school of medicine to be based in Rosedale. He asked only that the hospital be named to honor his late wife, Eleanor Taylor Bell. Eventually that led to Bell Memorial Hospital, with which thousands can now identify.

For all Bell's generosity, it was 11 years before his offer was accepted with notable results. While there is Kansas-Missouri conflict in the latest hassle, the opposition in 1984 came from within the state. According to historian McCool, state legislators saw increased expenses. Jealous Topeka residents wanted the medical school in the capital city. Many Kansas doctors balked at the proposed hospital's proximity to Missouri. Still others alleged that Bell's philanthropy only masked a cynical scheme to raise the value of his nearby Rosedale properties.

Does any of this sound familiar?

It wasn't until 1905, 11 years later, after Bell had added more money and land, that the gift was finally accepted and Bell Memorial Hospital was built in little Rosedale. There continued to be furor about where the hospital should be and it was only after an impassioned deathbed plea from Dr. Bell, in 1913, that authorities decided to keep Bell Memorial where it basically sits today. Bell was able to die happy, but there was no way he could have envisioned the ups and downs that would occur over the next century.

The KU School of Medicine opened its doors for the first day of classes as a four-year institution on Sept. 6, 1905. Permanent clinical facilities in Rosedale were still a year away from being ready for occupancy. There had been a merger of three Kansas City area medical programs and the future looked bright.

However, doctors and legislators remained contentious and often selfish. The most important thing the school had in its favor was an abundance of top-flight faculty members, which still is the recipe for success for the medical center and hospital.

The serious problems in handling Simeon Bell's gifts were marked by issues involving both financing and egos. It's clear that similar issues have continued to plague the KU installation from time to time, including the present.

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