Building Community through Shared History - A KU Memorial Union Program

A “Stupendous Windfall”

One would think it would be easy for a private citizen to give away $75,000, especially over 100 years ago when that amount qualified as real money, and even more particularly in a state seemingly so often cash-strapped as Kansas.

But such was not the case when Dr. Simeon Bishop Bell tried to bestow that hefty sum – in a combination of real estate and cash – on the University of Kansas. He intended his gift be used for the creation of a new hospital and full-fledged KU School of Medicine to be based in Rosedale (a town later incorporated into Kansas City, Kansas). Instead, Bell’s donation, first formally offered on August 24, 1894, would not be accepted for 11 years.

Neither ingratitude on KU’s part nor a lack of interest in the gift’s intended outcome was at the heart of this delay. Rather, a host of other outside factors combined to stall the deal for so long.

State legislators saw only increased annual expenses. Jealous Topeka residents wanted the medical school for the capital city. Many Kansas doctors balked at the proposed hospital’s closeness to Missouri. And still others alleged that Bell’s philanthropy only masked a cynical scheme to raise the value of his nearby Rosedale properties.

Not until 1905, after Bell had sweetened the pot with more money and more land, was the gift finally accepted and the first KU hospital – named in memory of the doctor’s late wife, Eleanor Taylor Bell – built in Rosedale. And even after that, it would take an impassioned deathbed plea from the good doctor himself eight years later to help keep it there.

The life of Simeon Bishop Bell is in many ways the classic American story of the self-made man who triumphs in the face of continued adversity. Born May 13, 1820, in Sussex County, New Jersey, he was the tenth of Jabesh and Gertrude Bell’s 15 children. He moved with his family to Ohio in 1832 and ended up working as a frontier mail carrier during his late adolescence. At age 21, uneducated and functionally illiterate, Bell enrolled in Ohio’s Norwalk Seminary. He embarked on a teaching career following graduation and began “reading medicine” with a local physician in the town of Lexington.

Marriage to Eleanor Taylor came in 1846, and soon the young couple moved to the Ohio capital of Columbus where Bell continued his schooling at Starling Medical College (now the Ohio State University College of Medicine), earning his MD in 1853. For the next several years, Bell worked as a physician in the city of Mansfield, Ohio, but an overabundance of doctors there stunted his practice. By late 1856, he determined to seek greener pastures and set out for Kansas Territory, which had been opened for settlement just two years earlier. With his wife, two daughters, and one or two other relatives, Bell arrived in Johnson County in the spring of 1857 and decided to settle in the environs of present-day Stilwell and Aubry, just southeast of Olathe.

The Bells found what appeared to be a thriving community, thickly populated and hardly suffering from a glut of doctors. The area was also relatively tranquil and did not suffer anywhere near the degree of violence between proslavery adherents and free-state supporters that wracked other parts of the territory during the “Bleeding Kansas” period. By 1861, despite stretches of drought and tough economic times, Bell had become a respected local physician as well as a relatively prosperous general store keeper and farmer.

The outbreak of Civil War changed his fortunes dramatically, causing temporary financial ruin and, very nearly, a murderous end to his life. During the war years, the outspokenly pro-Union Bell was a favorite target of cross-border marauders, known as “Bushwhackers,” from the slave state of Missouri. Time and again they pillaged his property, stole his horses, looted his store (and ultimately torched it), and sent him fleeing from his home before a hail of bullets. On one occasion, he was pistol-whipped and kidnapped by William Clarke Quantrill’s Confederate raiders, then forced to treat his tormentors’ injuries. And he twice suffered fractures to his skull, which would require a steel plate to remedy.

Likening this period to being “dropped into a hornet’s nest,” Bell later described how “those Missourians were always up to a lot of devilment. They robbed me, beat me, cut me, and tried to hang me. But I lived through it all.” And “when they burned my store,” Bell wrote postbellum, “there was nothing left for me to do but to go somewhere else and start again. It was then, in 1866, that I came to Kansas City.”

This year marked a new beginning for Bell, who now resided in Wyandotte County, but also another exceedingly difficult one. Eleanor, his wife of 20 years, died from childbirth complications, followed weeks later by their newborn son, Simeon Jr., the couple’s ninth child (and the fifth never to reach a seventh birthday). Bell remarried an Irishwoman named Margaret Bellis later that year, and would have two more children with her, but their union was apparently an unhappy one, ultimately resulting in divorce.

Remarkably, these personal tragedies seemed to have no negative effect on Bell’s business acumen. Despite suffering the loss of virtually all of his property – including his medical diploma – Bell nonetheless managed to make a series of shrewd real estate acquisitions with what little money he could scrape together. Even before the end of the Civil War, he concluded Kansas City would become a regional metropolis and began pursuing a concerted plan to buy up the lands of less-stalwart settlers who had chosen to leave the area. He soon accumulated more than 1,000 acres of formerly distressed property.

His foresight would be richly rewarded. Over the next two decades, Bell amassed a sizable fortune selling prime acreage to a number of railroad companies. He also retained significant landholdings and was able to increase their value exponentially by convincing various municipalities to build new roads through them. (Southwest Boulevard connecting Kansas City, Missouri, with Kansas City, Kansas, being the most prominent.) This self-interest was not entirely bereft of public benefit. As the Kansas City Star once noted, Bell was “the pioneer good roads advocate in Wyandotte County” who “was advocating parks and boulevards when such improvements were given little thought by anyone else.”

By the mid-1880s, the aging doctor, who had not practiced medicine regularly for quite some time, began to cast his eye toward a different kind of societal improvement. The Wyandotte Gazette of December 31, 1886, reported on his plan to donate property “to some powerful church or other organization on which to erect an institution of higher learning of a broad and liberal nature.” Explaining how, in his youth, Bell had to “work his way through school and college, depending wholly on his own efforts,” the Gazette added that his hope was to see “every young man and woman in the country [have] college opportunities at the least possible expense.”

However, no immediate action was taken on this contemplated philanthropic project. During the seven years following the initial announcement, it seems Bell had come to believe that a “broad and liberal” university was not what was really needed in the greater Kansas City area. Of far greater importance, he thought by the early 1890s, was a hospital and medical college to train future physicians. He recalled how “it took me a lot of hard work to get a medical education when I was a young man,” and began reformulating his plans so as to “make it easier for the young men and women of this day and age to acquire a medical education.”

On August 24, 1894, Bell took his first step down what would prove a long and winding 11-year road to fruition. In a letter to Professor Lucius E. Sayre, dean of the KU School of Pharmacy, he told of his desire to “make some propositions for you and others – looking toward the establishment and building [of] first a hospital and second a medical college in Kansas City, Kansas.” Well, “not quite Kansas City, Kansas,” Bell explained, but in his hometown of Rosedale (then an independent city) on a seven-acre “promontory” overlooking Southwest Boulevard known as College Park.

“Said tract,” Bell informed Sayre, “is almost as high as Mount Oread” and would be “a dandy site for an extensive hospital.” And to fund its construction, Bell promised to deed over 101 Rosedale residence lots – with an estimated value of roughly $25,000 – that KU could sell to raise the necessary capital. Additionally, he offered as much as $50,000 in “nucleus” money to erect a number of medical college buildings, all of which would be “respectfully submitted to the management of the Kansas State University” (as the University of Kansas was then generally known).

The total package of real estate and cash offered by Bell was worth some $75,000. Upon hearing this news, Dean Sayre, University Chancellor Francis Huntington Snow, and members of the KU Board of Regents were borderline ecstatic at what KU historian Clifford Griffin later termed a “stupendous windfall.”

They certainly had good reason to be jubilant, considering the miniscule level of medical education then offered on Mount Oread. In 1894, KU students who hoped to be physicians could only enroll in a rudimentary, one-year medical preparatory course. Those who completed the program had to go elsewhere to earn their MD degrees, an option that originally had been viable. By this point, however, it was becoming increasingly difficult as reputable medical schools elsewhere in the country had raised their standards and were proving unwilling to accept the KU credits on a transfer basis.

Bell’s proposal was not ideal in that it called for dividing medical education between Lawrence and Rosedale, an idea KU leadership had heretofore rejected. Nonetheless, it appeared to be something of a godsend. The University could immediately establish a full-fledged, four-year School of Medicine, as was becoming the national norm. The first two preparatory years would take place on the Lawrence campus and provide comprehensive background training in the sciences. The final two years, featuring clinical training and practical hospital experience, would be taught in Rosedale. As Chancellor Snow perceived it, with Bell’s donation as a base, the only thing required of the Kansas legislature would be to provide an annual appropriation of $10,000 to maintain the School on a “creditable basis.”

Not everyone saw it this way. Indeed, Bell’s generosity quickly aroused a perfect storm of opposition. Although a bill accepting his gift and approving the hospital construction project passed the Kansas Senate in 1895, it stalled in the state’s House of Representatives.

Spearheading the effort to kill the bill outright was a consortium of Kansas physicians led by a Topeka contingent that had long desired a publicly-funded medical school for the state capital. Others pointed to the glaringly obvious fact that Rosedale was some 400 miles from the western border of Kansas and, as such, would be of little service to those living outside the northeastern quadrant of the state, even though all taxpaying Kansans were being asked to support it.

Most egregiously of all, in the minds of these critics, was that Kansas residents were being asked to fund a hospital that would most likely benefit Missourians, and be dominated by Missouri medical men to boot. As one Kansas physician exclaimed, a hospital in Rosedale would become nothing more than an “asylum for harboring the paupers of Missouri and treating their ailments at the expense of the whole people of Kansas.”

Still another charge was cuttingly personal, coming as it did from members of the Wyandotte County Medical Society, Bell’s own neighbors and ostensibly his medical colleagues. As KU historian Clifford Griffin put it, the Society “charged [Bell] with a land speculation scheme of trying to increase the value of some of his near-worthless Rosedale land by getting a hospital for the area.” The Society further contended that “Goat Hill” – the intended site for the hospital – was “isolated, inaccessible, and entirely unsuited for an institution of this kind.”

Given how Bell made his fortune, this sort of accusation was not on its face implausible. What tends to blunt it, however, is that those alleging crass self-interest on the part of Bell were not immune to the charge themselves. Many of the Wyandotte County Medical Society doctors, it turns out, were either supporters of, or affiliated with, the recently established Kansas City, Kansas, College of Physicians and Surgeons. Naturally, they saw any new medical college in the vicinity as a potential intruder on their domain.

To be sure, the “inaccessibility” and “unsuitability” concerns about “Goat Hill” possessed a good deal of merit, as would later be demonstrated. Nonetheless, it seems unlikely that Bell would have purposely unloaded a real estate lemon on the people of Kansas. After all, the 74-year-old intended – and indeed had long planned – to build just such an institution as a hometown memorial to his late wife Eleanor. Only the most cynical, perhaps, can conceive of him tarnishing her memory by tying it to a shady land scheme.

Whatever the validity of the Society’s charges, its opposition to the project – coupled with that of other Kansas physicians and some legislators, who thought the project prohibitively expensive – did in fact ultimately torpedo the bill. However, there was an escape hatch that prevented the idea from sinking out of sight. Bell’s original offer included a clause that kept the proposed donation valid for a period of 10 years. This phase would run until 1904. If the gift was not accepted by that year, the offer would be voided and the property turned back to Bell or his heirs.

With a decade to work with, many supporters believed there would be plenty of time to revisit the issue during later legislative sessions. Yet as year piled upon year and the deadline drew closer, it increasingly appeared that the state would just simply let the offer pass.

Snow’s successor, KU Chancellor Frank Strong, was not about to allow this to happen. By the time he took office in 1902, KU formally had a School of Medicine, but one, really, in name only. Three years earlier, the University had established a two-year medical program, though it granted only the BS degree, not the MD; and furthermore, did not provide its students with any clinical training. If Strong was to make KU’s School of Medicine the “Johns Hopkins of the West,” as he once proclaimed, Bell’s deal – with all its tangling strings attached – was still his best bet. Strong was in close contact with Bell and agreed with the doctor that the gift “ought never to be allowed to escape.”

Unable to spur any action before the 1904 deadline passed, the chancellor persuaded Bell to extend his offer for an additional year. Strong promised he and the Regents would then try again to convince the state legislature to accept the gift. Bell not only agreed to the extension, he even upped the ante, vowing to add an additional 500 acres of Missouri farmland in Cass and Jackson counties worth an estimated $25,000. This enhancement brought the total value of Bell’s pledge above $100,000. And in the end, while many of the old objections were raised in the Kansas House and Senate, with this much funding available for the taking, it proved an offer the legislators could not very well refuse.

What appears to have ultimately ensured bicameral passage, though, was a written pledge by Strong vowing, effectively, never to ask, ever again, for any more money. “I can say to you authoritatively,” he wrote, “that the Board of Regents and the present management of the University will not either now or hereafter call for appropriations from the legislature either for buildings or maintenance of the clinical school at Rosedale.” (In later years, Strong would develop a bout of selective amnesia concerning this solemn guarantee – though fortunately for the nascent KU School of Medicine, it appears to have been contagious since the legislators seemed to forget it as well.)

As Strong himself confessed, “The whole problem of the medical school came so suddenly that it was impossible for anyone to see in just what direction the development would have to take place.” Describing it as a “problem” was apt indeed, for as Griffin pointed out, in the 1905 rush to get Bell’s offer accepted, there was little thought given to “planning for the future” and even less as to “whether the University was ready for a four-year medical course.” Nonetheless, Strong and the Regents, flush with victory, were determined to plow ahead.

Construction began in 1905 on what would become the $25,000 Eleanor Taylor Bell Memorial Hospital. As Bell intended, it was situated atop Rosedale’s “Goat Hill” – so-called either for the herd of goats that grazed at the bottom or, as some suggested in jest, because only goats could climb the steep gradient. The new hospital would be completed in 1906. In the meantime, Chancellor Strong and the Regents resolved to open the companion clinical department in time for the fall 1905 semester. To make this happen, they had to perform some skillful, if slapdash, negotiations.

The fruit of their labors was the merger of three Kansas City-area medical colleges – complete with their students, faculties, and facilities – into the new four-year KU School of Medicine. These included the Medico-Chirurgical College and the Kansas City Medical College (both in Missouri) and Dr. Bell’s old nemesis, the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Kansas City, Kansas. For the time being, the School’s newly acquired 162 students attended third- and fourth-year clinical classes at the College of Physicians and Surgeons’ building in downtown KCK.

Conditions were fairly primitive, but at long last KU could finally boast, if it wished, to having a real medical school. Problem was, few were in the mood. Indeed, over the next several years, all the old headaches and grievances resurfaced with abandon – and these, joined by some unforeseen new dilemmas, threatened to dash Dr. Bell’s Rosedale dream at its inception.

In 1906, Chancellor Strong reported to the Board of Regents that the KU School of Medicine was enjoying “abundant success,” occasioned by the completion of Bell Memorial Hospital as well as a research laboratory and an outpatient clinic. The two-year Clinical Department in Rosedale had its first dean at the helm in the person of Dr. George H. Hoxie. A training program for nurses had been established. And plans were being made to organize five distinct specialty fields in internal medicine; surgery; obstetrics and gynecology; clinical pathology and hygiene; and “special subjects” such as ophthalmology and dermatology.

This rosy assessment disguised the fact that the School was suffering from a severe shortage of money. Not only that, Dean Hoxie was fast alienating the entire faculty with his “dictatorial” manner and for fancying himself, in one colleague’s words, as “God almighty … without either the Lord’s omniscience or His mercy.”

Additionally, the mainly Missourian faculty were coming under intense criticism from the Kansas medical community for, basically, being from and living in Missouri and, also, for devoting what some Sunflower State doctors contended was too much time to private practice. Perhaps most discouragingly, the 35-bed Bell Memorial Hospital was proving far too small, meaning students were being deprived of adequate experience with patient-care.

As KU historian Griffin has characterized this period, “for its first decade and more,” the KU School of Medicine languished due to “careless planning and no planning,” hamstrung by both “Simeon Bell’s egocentric philanthropy and Frank Strong’s eagerness to have an appendage called a Medical School, whatever its quality.”

Some of these problems came to be addressed and partially ameliorated in subsequent years. Dean Hoxie resigned in 1911. He was replaced – at least on a pro forma basis – by noted Kansas physician and public health advocate Dr. Samuel J. Crumbine, who took the title of dean but generally spent only one day a week in Rosedale. Also in 1911, a second and larger Eleanor Taylor Bell Memorial Hospital was erected on Goat Hill. But even with these changes, the Clinical Department remained on shaky ground. Perhaps sensing vulnerability in this state of affairs, in late 1912 the Commercial Club of Topeka launched an effort to get the Medical School’s Clinical Department relocated to the capital city, something influential Topekans had tried and failed to do before.

Although the Kansas legislature had started to vote some significant appropriations for the Rosedale campus, the Topeka businessmen well knew that many lawmakers had done so reluctantly. As Bell biographer Helen M. Sims has noted, the awful location in Rosedale was the primary reason. “The steep paths leading to the hospital site,” she wrote, “hampered by uneven terrain, inaccessibility, [and] smoke and noise from the passing railroad cars, brought criticism from the legislative committees and thus opposition to sufficient appropriations to help the institution grow.” The Commercial Club sensed that relocation to Topeka might be in the offing.

But Bell, still alive at 92, was determined to see the School and his wife’s namesake hospital remain in Rosedale. On January 10, 1913, he penned (or perhaps dictated) what turned out to be a deathbed plea. Published by the Kansas City Star as an open letter to state legislators, Bell first expressed his “deepest regret” that any relocation was being considered. He then reminded the lawmakers that in 1905, “The Chancellor and the board of Regents of the University assured me that any gift would be held sacred for the purpose given.” That purpose, Bell went on, was “a desire to do something for my profession and also … to erect a living monument to the memory of my wife, Eleanor Taylor Bell.”

To move the facilities away from Rosedale, he continued, would be “a great disappointment to me – a complete shattering of my early and lifelong ambition – and coming as it does in the 93rd year of my life … I [would] feel it as a great blow.” Bell closed by asking the legislature to keep the School where it was, and let it “remain for all time,” so that he might “die in peace.”

Later that month, the state legislature did just that, passing a bill that declared the KU School of Medicine would maintain its presence in the Kansas City, Kansas area, “for all time to come.” Whether the deciding factor was Bell’s appeal or the stalemated power struggle between Topeka and Wichita – both of which wanted the medical school and weren’t willing to let the other have it – is open to conjecture. In either event, Dr. Bell did not live to receive the news. He passed away on January 16, six days after writing his letter.

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: Clifford S. Griffin, The University of Kansas: A History, (University Press of Kansas, 1974), pp. 29, 47, 105, 130-135, 176-179, 264-273; Robert Taft, The Years on Mount Oread, (University Press of Kansas, 1955), pp. 86-89, 201; Ralph H. Major, M.D., An Account of the University of Kansas School of Medicine, (University of Kansas Medical Alumni Association, 1900), pp. 1-58; Lawrence H. Larsen and Nancy J. Hulston, The University of Kansas Medical Center: A Pictorial History, (University Press of Kansas, 1992), pp. ix-x, 3-25;Helen M. Sims, “Simeon Bishop Bell, M.D.,” (University of Kansas Medical Center, 1979); Medical Center Bulletin (October 1970), pp. 13,15; Robert H. Chesky, M.D., “Simeon B. Bell,” Journal of the Kansas Medical Society (April 1966), pp. 177-190; Lawrence Journal-World (May 1, 1979), p.10; Mary Eleanor Filkin Spencer, “Simeon Bishop Bell, M.D.: His Forebears, His Life, His Legacy” (1981), pp. 2-17; F.H. Snow to Dr. Simeon B. Bell (October 11, 1894); Perl W. Morgan, ed., History of Wyandotte County Kansas and Its People (Lewis Publishing Co., 1911), pp. 883-884.]