Building Community through Shared History - A KU Memorial Union Program

Wahl On The Fly

When Dr. Harry R. Wahl became acting dean of the KU School of Medicine, the institution was at its “lowest ebb.”

His predecessor, humiliated into resigning three weeks prior, was but one casualty of a nasty intrastate political war that saw the state’s Democratic governor and the University’s Republican chancellor at daggers drawn.

And the School itself – due to the attendant chaos – had just lost out on the chance to obtain a badly needed $2.5 million Rockefeller Foundation grant. Considering all this, one can’t help wondering: did Wahl step forward, or did every other potential candidate simply step back?

Upon taking office on August 12, 1924, the Johns Hopkins-trained physician and KU School of Medicine professor and pathology department chairman had had comparatively little administrative experience. Initially, his appointment was considered temporary. But in 1927, after three years on the job, Wahl became the permanent dean and remained so for the next 21 years – easily the longest stewardship in School history.

During his tenure, Wahl led the Medical School through what were undoubtedly its toughest times. Inheriting an institution awkwardly divided between campuses in Kansas City and Lawrence, he endured tight budgets, inadequate facilities and uneven legislative support, not to mention the Great Depression, plus the daily disarray caused by World War II.

Notwithstanding these constraints, Wahl was often considered an unassertive, even reluctant administrator. His critics charged that he seemed content to preside over a “good enough” School of Medicine. And ironically, while he initially lamented – and tirelessly worked to remedy – the various campuses’ “physical non-integration,” his temperament and sense of practical considerations also made him a principal defender of the School’s de facto racial segregationist policies.

Yet if he took a job no one else had apparently wanted, looking back, Wahl presided over growth few would have predicted. During a period now remembered as “The Wahl Years,” the KU School of Medicine experienced marked enlargement of its physical plant and establishment of numerous new programs and departments. Some truly exceptional physician-educators joined the faculty, and 1,569 doctors and 674 nurses were graduated.

All these developments occurred on Wahl’s watch, too. Indeed, “the story of [the School’s] growth into a mature leader among America’s medical institutions,” as one colleague later put it, “is interwoven with the life of Dr. Wahl.”

That life began on May 5, 1886, in Minnesota City, Minnesota, when Henry and Clara Wahl welcomed their son Harry Roswell Wahl into the world. Being the child of a schoolteacher mother and a physician father, it came as little surprise that, after taking his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin (in 1908 and 1910, respectively), he would pursue a career in medicine himself.

Yet it would not be just any career. Instead, Wahl chose to pursue perhaps the finest and most rigorous medical training in North America, that from Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University.

Upon earning his MD in 1912, Dr. Wahl remained in Baltimore, serving as house physician at Mt. Wilson Sanitarium. Soon after, though, he accepted a research fellowship at Cleveland’s Western Reserve University Medical School (present-day Case Western Reserve) and, beginning in 1913, an instructorship in pathology.

Still on staff three years later, he took on added responsibility as director of laboratories at Mt. Sinai Hospital, also in Cleveland, as well as all the obligations that come with marriage. In 1916, he wedded Elizabeth Emery, with whom he would have three children.

Like so many of his generation – and especially those with his professional expertise – America’s entry into the First World War was a call to service for Wahl. Answering that call, he joined the US Army Medical Corps, in which he was commissioned a captain. While he did not see combat, Wahl rendered essential stateside service nonetheless.

In fact, among his military assignments was a brief sojourn in the Sunflower State, where, in 1917, he taught bacteriology to officers at Fort Leavenworth. The following year, though, Wahl was reassigned to New Haven, Connecticut. There he was put in charge of the Yale Laboratory School, a facility temporarily occupied by the War Department and used for the care of wounded US soldiers.

As it turned out, Wahl’s seemingly fleeting connection to Kansas would be reestablished (and eventually cemented) by way of a chance friendship he struck up with another Army doctor assigned to Yale. His name was Ralph H. Major, and in civilian life he was professor and department chairman of pathology at the University of Kansas School of Medicine.

Like Wahl, Major was an alumnus of Johns Hopkins. That’s not all they had in common. As they quickly discovered, both were also looking to change jobs.

In Major’s case, although he had been at his KU pathology position since 1914, his real passion was internal medicine. When a professorship in that field opened at Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital and was offered to Major upon his discharge from the Army at war’s end, he elected to take it. But before leaving Kansas in 1919, Major consulted with Dr. Mervin T. Sudler, associate dean and effective head of the Medical School, concerning his possible replacement.

Knowing that his army buddy, Harry Wahl, was a top-notch pathologist and eager for career advancement, Major proffered his name to Sudler, adding that his friend was “an excellent teacher and had organized an outstanding school [in New Haven].” Sudler agreed to make the overture and, to both men’s immense satisfaction, Wahl enthusiastically accepted, declaring – to both men’s apparent amazement – that KU was actually better equipped than the Cleveland-area hospitals he had returned to upon his own military discharge.

The reason for Major and Sudler’s surprise was that the four-year KU School of Medicine, by all accounts and by most every measure, was a troubled institution. At the core of its problems was its divided existence.

The Scientific Department, which provided the first three semesters of background instruction in subjects such as anatomy, biochemistry and physiology, was located on KU’s main campus in Lawrence. Meanwhile, the Clinical Department, based some 40 miles away on “Goat Hill” in Rosedale (now part of Kansas City, Kansas), offered the remaining five semesters. There, medical students received more specialized education in surgery, obstetrics, ophthalmology and the like, as well as hands-on practice diagnosing illnesses and prescribing treatments at the Eleanor Taylor Bell Memorial Hospital.

As Carnegie Foundation consultant Abraham Flexner had laid bare in his 1910 exposé titled Medical Education in the United States and Canada, the Rosedale campus suffered from many deficiencies. As Flexner saw it, the School’s hospital was too small; not enough faculty members had undergone “modern training”; and its aspiring physicians were not getting sufficient bedside experience.

Exacerbating these conditions – perhaps even a cause of them – were the annual woes resulting from meager budgets and a generally indifferent state legislature. And to make things even worse, there was as yet still no solid statewide consensus that the Clinical Department should remain in Rosedale, or that it should even continue to exist at all.
By October 1919, when Dr. Wahl began his duties as professor and chairman of pathology at the Rosedale campus, none of these systemic problems had been resolved. As KU historian Clifford Griffin has characterized the sorry state of affairs, “All that the Medical School’s leaders had was a small, inadequate, understaffed school with a poor reputation.”

Fortunately help was on the way. In the early 1920s, thanks to the leadership of Kansas Governor Henry J. Allen, a solid financial commitment from a group of KU physicians, a $30,000 bond issue approved by Rosedale voters, and some comparatively enormous appropriations from a freshly supportive state legislature, the seeds of the School’s "renaissance" were being sown.

The most obvious manifestation was a larger, more modern Bell Memorial Hospital being built up at 39th and Rainbow Boulevard in Rosedale. (In 1922, Rosedale consolidated with Kansas City, Kansas, and became that city’s eighth ward.)

Ready for occupancy in June 1924, the opening of the new hospital signaled that, finally, the troublesome and long-disputed locational question had been settled. (What this meant, too, however, was that the Medical School now operated on three campuses – two in Kansas City and one in Lawrence. And considering that the pathology department remained on the original Goat Hill site, this is where Dr. Wahl remained as well.)

Yet at the dawn of this putative rebirth, the School of Medicine figuratively stepped (or was pushed) into an open trench. Barely a month following the new Bell Memorial Hospital’s dedication, a spate of political controversies rocked the state.

The principal combatants were Kansas Governor Jonathan M. Davis, Allen’s Democratic successor, and KU Chancellor Ernest H. Lindley, himself a staunch Republican. Previously, they had crossed swords over such issues as university governance, professorial pay scales, and the governor’s determination to place his supporters in patronage jobs at KU. But the events of July 1924 finally placed the two at implacable loggerheads.

The showdown began when the Kansas Board of Administration – a body of political appointees that then exercised jurisdiction over public colleges and universities, as well as numerous other state entities – fired KU’s buildings and grounds superintendent on trumped-up charges after he failed to heed the Board’s blandishments to hire Davis supporters as campus workmen.

To Lindley, this appeared an egregious usurping of the chancellor’s authority. It was also an ominous sign that the entire state university system was in danger of becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of the governor’s mansion and his contemplated patronage jobs machine.

The Medical School became involved when an erroneous report circulated that the Board had also fired Dr. Mervin Sudler from his position as dean. To be sure, Sudler had been vulnerable to dismissal for quite some time. He had been accused of everything from maladministration and kowtowing to Missouri physicians (at the expense of Kansas doctors), to using Med School facilities to treat his own private patients.

While these charges were not substantiated, the untrue news of his firing – which came while he was on vacation, no less – was sufficiently humiliating to convince Sudler to resign.

From that point on, political partisanship raged across the state, further fueled by the fact that 1924 was an election year and Davis was seeking to retain the governorship. Accusations of rampant statehouse jobbery and Davis’ alleged sympathies for the Ku Klux Klan, a hopelessly politicized Board of Administration, virtual warfare between chancellor and governor, and a Medical School with no dean – this was the picture of Kansas in the summer of 1924.

To ameliorate the damage, at least as far as the Medical School was concerned, Governor Davis offered the acting deanship to Dr. Ralph Major, who had returned to KU in 1921 to chair the internal medicine department. In response, Major indicated his willingness to accept the position only if one key condition were met – the re-instatement of Dr. Sudler as professor of surgery. Davis refused, and on August 12, 1924, area newspapers reported that Major had declined the job.

That night, the Board of Administration convened an emergency meeting in Kansas City. On Chancellor Lindley’s recommendation and with full faculty support, the members chose to appoint 38-year-old Dr. Harry Wahl acting dean. The vote was tantamount to acceptance, since Wahl had already been approached and had indicated his willingness to take the position if offered. Just like that, he became the “one man who could carry the institution through these trying times.”

“Due to my lack of experience in hospital administration and being a poor public speaker,” Wahl would later confess, “I had some qualms about taking over the responsibilities of this new and growing institution.” That said, one of his first acts as dean demonstrated his sincere commitment to protect the School against political interference.

Around this time, Governor Davis had been trying to foist a former cigar store clerk on the School of Medicine, angling to make him superintendent of Bell Memorial Hospital. (The man’s only apparent qualification was his tireless stumping in Douglas County in support of Davis’ 1922 gubernatorial bid.) Wahl came up with a stratagem for preventing this obviously unqualified individual from assuming such an important office. In the process, he demonstrated an unexpected level of executive talent and effectively solidified the bonds between the School and its hospital.

As Wahl biographer Helen M. Sims put it, the new acting dean “wisely requested, and was granted, the responsibility as head of the hospital, as well as the medical school.” And since Wahl volunteered to accept no additional salary as hospital superintendent, “there was little possibility of a political appointee by the governor being named to that position.”

Of course, had the 1924 Kansas gubernatorial race turned out differently, Wahl’s tenure as acting dean may have lasted only a few months. In Major’s account, he claimed on good authority that Governor Davis – if re-elected to a second two-year term – had even more ambitious plans to reward supporters with University patronage jobs. One of those schemes apparently involved making “a doctor friend [of the governor’s] dean of the medical school.” As it turned out, though, voters in November ended up rejecting Davis, choosing Republican Ben S. Paulen as governor instead.

Thus Wahl’s position was preserved, as, incidentally, was Ernest Lindley’s. (As it happened, a spiteful lame duck Davis succeeded in having the chancellor sacked in the waning days of December 1924, but Lindley was promptly reinstated upon Paulen’s assumption of the governorship in January 1925.)

The change of administration in Topeka would indeed calm the waters, but damage to the University had already been done. Nowhere was this felt more deeply than at the KU School of Medicine. As Major later described it, “The Medical School has had many periods when its spirits were low and when the future looked bleak, but it has never passed through a period when its morale was as low as it was during the second half of the year 1924.”

Most dispiriting was news that the Rockefeller Foundation – due to all the upheaval – had dropped KU from consideration of a $2.5 million medical education grant. And given the Medical School’s anemic state-funded annual budget of only $139,000, those Rockefeller millions sure could have been a godsend.

As such, their loss was both a fiscal and psychological blow. The malaise that ensued, coupled with still serious funding shortages and a weakened School now spread over three campuses – Mount Oread, Goat Hill, and 39th and Rainbow – was the situation that confronted the new acting dean.

Wahl was now administrative head of a School that counted 72 full- and part-time faculty members, 160 medical and nursing students and 77 other staff personnel. The Scientific Department remained in Lawrence. At Goat Hill, there were the pathology and pharmacology departments, as well as a medical library. And at 39th and Rainbow, Bell Memorial Hospital (which additionally housed a rudimentary research lab, offices and classrooms) was the principal edifice, plus a power plant and two temporary wood frame structures, one of which was the segregated “Negro ward.” (There were, incidentally, no black physicians employed by or black students enrolled in the Clinical Department, as per an unwritten but strictly observed Medical School segregation policy.)

Under these conditions, “Wahl placed an emphasis on stability, eschewing any attempt at dramatic progress,” according to Lawrence H. Larsen and Nancy J. Hulston in their 1992 book, The University of Kansas Medical Center: A Pictorial History. As a result, during the remainder of the 1920s, he “presided over what amounted to a permanent austerity program.”

It should be noted, however, that this was hardly by choice. As Griffin has pointed out, Wahl quickly “discovered that the legislature was willing to keep the School’s quality high but not to make it great.” Because of sparse appropriations, Wahl and his fellow faculty members were never able to “train all Kansas youths who sought to become physicians,” nor were they able to realize some rather ambitious plans pertaining to postgraduate and continuing education. And needless to say, there never seemed money enough to build all the new structures and purchase all the most modern equipment necessary to create a truly first-rate institution.

Nonetheless, Wahl was a remarkably engaged executive, and a hardworking one at that. Not only did he have considerable managerial duties, both as dean and hospital superintendent, but he also retained chairmanship of the pathology department and taught courses in pathology and bacteriology, all the while pursuing his own research interests. These included studying tumors of the nervous system and gastrointestinal tract, as well as Hodgkin’s disease.

Regularly putting in 18-hour days, Wahl could hardly be dubbed an absentee administrator. In 1927, in recognition of his dedication, the Kansas Board of Regents (the de-politicized successor body to the Board of Administration that was the one positive outcome of the Davis-Lindley imbroglio) elected to make Wahl permanent dean. “The Wahl Years,” as biographer Helen Sims later dubbed them, were definitely now in full swing.

Unfortunately, in socio-economic terms, the next 15 or so years were generally bad ones, not only for the University of Kansas, but for the state and nation as well. With the onset of the Great Depression, the KU School of Medicine suffered budget cuts of as much as 25 percent – and this was down from levels that were pretty low to begin with. Amid these chronic funding shortfalls and cutbacks, Wahl found himself the object of frequent criticism.

He was accused of not lobbying legislators vigorously enough (or at all) in order to somehow reverse the School’s flagging fortunes. This was proof, in some people’s minds, not only of his ineffectiveness but also of Wahl’s myopic and pessimistic outlook, one that was satisfied with mediocrity. At times, as Larson and Hulston put it, Wahl did appear a “reluctant administrator … without either driving ambition or an overriding vision. If he entertained a goal, it was simply to keep the school open. In short, he presided over a holding operation.”

Yet realistically, perhaps this was the best that could have been done. Perhaps there was success in survival, especially in the midst of such statewide and national misery. (This emphasis on just keeping one’s institutional head above water, in fact, was also what faced Wahl’s boss in Lawrence, University Chancellor Ernest Lindley, during these difficult times.) One struggles, moreover, to imagine just how Wahl could have personally coaxed more money out of a state that was not only in the throes of depression, but was further devastated by the onset of the Dust Bowl years.

The upshot of all this, however, was that Kansas politicians basically left Wahl alone and allowed him to run the Medical School with decidedly minimal interference. And while little research was conducted and few important medical advances were made during the 1930s, Wahl did have reasons to be proud of his institution.

One of the most conspicuous occurred in 1931 when the School was granted a chapter of the Alpha Omega Alpha scholarship fraternity – an honor bestowed only on those institutions that ranked in the upper half of medical schools nationwide.

The School’s continued graduation of quality doctors, despite its budgetary distresses, was certainly a credit to Wahl’s leadership, too. In this, he was ably assisted by a first-rate group of faculty members, many of whom had received their training at some of America’s most elite universities. “During a period of ubiquitous shortages,” concluded Sims, “he held together a small cadre of dedicated and excellent physician-educators.” Among the most prominent were his old friend Dr. Ralph Major; surgery professor Dr. Thomas G. Orr; and clinical professor Dr. Logan Clendening – all prolific and successful physician-authors as well.

In some ways, though, Wahl had reasons to be ashamed of his School, even though he apparently wasn’t. By the late 1930s, two African-American students had applied for admission, the first being Atchison resident Donald S. Ferguson, who had earned an undergraduate degree from the officially integrated (though still socially segregated) University of Kansas. His 1934 application to the four-year KU School of Medicine – as well as several subsequent attempts – was rejected solely on racial grounds. So, too, in a way, was the second applicant’s, that of Howard University alum Geraldine Mowbray, also a native Kansan.

“It has been understood,” wrote Dean Wahl, in a July 31, 1937, letter to Mowbray, “that members of your race enter the medical school for the first and second years and cannot be admitted to the clinical years. We want you to know,” he added, “that if you enter the school, it is only for the first two years after which you would have to transfer to another school.”

As it turned out, Mowbray did indeed enter (and successfully complete) the Medical School’s Scientific Department in Lawrence. But with Wahl’s letter in hand, she elected to finish her medical education at Howard University in Washington, DC, choosing not to challenge KU’s de facto prohibition on allowing black students to complete the final years of clinical study at 39th and Rainbow.

Opting out like Mowbray was also going to be the decision of Edward Vernon Williams, an African-American from Ellsworth, Kansas. In 1935, Williams had earned his undergraduate degree in zoology from KU, graduating Phi Beta Kappa (the prestigious honor society, incidentally, of which Dean Wahl was also a member).

Like Mowbray, Williams then entered the KU School of Medicine, completed the scientific program and was promptly denied admittance to the clinical years. “I felt it was unfortunate,” he later recalled. “But I didn’t gripe about it. I knew I was going to have to go somewhere else, so I just accepted it.”

Others, however, were not so accepting. In a 1996 Kansas History article, KU Medical Center archivist Nancy Hulston chronicled how, in the summer of 1938, a group of “black civic leaders … impressed by [Williams’] quiet studious nature … excited by his superb scholarship” and unbeknownst to him, went to bat on his behalf.

They approached Kansas Governor Walter A. Huxman and informed him of the blatant (and unlawful) discrimination going on at the state-supported Medical School. This was apparently news to the governor, so he immediately contacted Chancellor Lindley, asking if it were so. “I am not writing this letter,” the Democrat Huxman explained, “on the assumption that this charge is true, but I do think it is entitled to a thorough investigation because our schools must be and remain open to all classes of citizens.”

In reply, Lindley regretted the allegation was indeed valid. “Negroes do not have equal opportunities with whites in this respect.” he admitted. But, claimed the chancellor, it was only because “white patients do not wish to have negro interns to serve them,” and “we have to consider particularly the wishes of our patients in that regard.” This response did not sit well with Huxman, who reiterated his commitment to full racial integration at the Medical School in follow-up communications with Lindley.

Having no luck convincing the governor otherwise, Lindley asked Dean Wahl to see if he couldn’t present “our point of view” more persuasively. Wahl tried a more aggressive tack. First, he solicited 31 other US medical schools on how they dealt with black applicants, discovering that 19 employed the same exclusionary policy as KU.

Armed with this information, Wahl then assembled a three-man faculty committee and scheduled a meeting with Huxman. Along with Drs. Ralph Major and James B. Weaver, Wahl informed the governor that “no black students would be accepted until separate facilities were built to accommodate them,” as Hulston put it in her Kansas History article.

The governor did not take too kindly to this brazen ultimatum. Afterwards, he declared that “intolerance” was contrary to “democracy [and] the true American spirit.” The Kansas Board of Regents seemed to agree. On August 8, 1938 the Regents passed a unanimous resolution forbidding any future discrimination at the University of Kansas School of Medicine. On that day, Edward Vernon Williams was officially admitted to the Clinical Department. He earned his KU MD in 1941, becoming the first African-American to do so.

(Interestingly, in 1951 as a federal district court judge, Huxman declined to rule against Topeka’s segregated elementary school system, largely on the grounds that the “separate but equal” doctrine enshrined into law by the US Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision was not being violated, since “by objective standards the [segregated] schools were equal,” as Paul Wilson noted in a 1981 article for the Kansas Law Review. However, Huxman did find that “Segregation with the sanction of law …has a tendency to retard the education and mental development of the Negro children, and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in an integrated school system.” With this ruling, the stage was set for the US Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case.)

Though defeated, Wahl was not quite ready to surrender. Yet neither was aspirant medical student Donald Ferguson, who had been trying to secure admission to the Medical School's clinical program for much of the 1930s. And just as persistently, Wahl personally continued to deny Ferguson’s application, alleging he “would be the type to insist on being taken where white patients are.”

In the end, it took a threatened lawsuit and the Regents’ intervention to make Wahl reverse course. Ferguson was finally admitted in 1939. In 1942, he became the second African-American to earn a KU medical degree.

To contemporary readers, there really seems no good reason for Wahl’s intransigence, but perhaps there is an explanation that goes beyond the purely prejudicial. At this time, a majority percentage of the KU Hospital’s revenues came from private (and paying) patients, many of whom hailed from Missouri, a state that, in the 1930s, officially practiced “Jim Crow”-style racial segregation.

Whatever his personal feelings, Wahl was in a most difficult situation, forced to weigh compliance with Kansas law against the risk of losing the School’s white Missourian patients were he to permit black medical students to treat them – or even be around them. And with the state of Kansas only contributing roughly a third of the School’s operating expenses, it was a risk he was not sanguine about taking. It should also be noted that Wahl’s antipathy to admitting African-Americans was hardly unique. Records indicate that most of his Med School colleagues shared the same disinclination.

The World War II years reflected Dean Wahl and his Medical School in a far better light, all the more so considering the war’s attendant and supremely difficult dislocations. Scores of faculty and staff rushed to volunteer themselves and their professional abilities for the American war effort. And while this had the obvious effect of substantially reducing the School’s capabilities, it also resulted in its most praiseworthy wartime endeavor – the US Army’s 77th Evacuation Hospital Unit. Comprised of 47 doctors and 52 nurses, mostly from the KU School of Medicine, for more than three years the unit rendered courageous and honorable service in both the North African and European Theaters.

Furthermore, in order to help meet the nation’s dire need for more physicians, Wahl supervised the temporary institution of year-round schooling. And at war’s end, he fostered relationships with Veterans Administration hospitals throughout Kansas and Missouri, allowing KU physicians to provide further care to wounded American soldiers. As Sims noted, “The University of Kansas was one of the first schools to arrange such affiliations.”

Four years of war, however, did take a serious toll on the Medical School, forcing it, according to Larsen and Hulston, “to consider institutional survival the primary objective rather than setting new goals designed to advance or modernize” its “meager and outdated” facilities. As had been the case since roughly the mid-1920s, “austerity remained the rule”; and as such, these “two decades of statutory neglect had helped to sap [its] vitality.”

By all accounts, these years had sapped Harry Wahl’s vitality as well. And according to Griffin, after more than 20 years on the job, he seemed finally to be wearing out his welcome. By the mid-1940s, “Many faculty members …came to think Dean Wahl incompetent and tyrannical.” Moreover, he was now running afoul of the Kansas medical community, too, with many alleging that, under his leadership, “the School offered inadequate instruction, … failed to cooperate with local public health officers,” and took patients (and, thus, “income and prestige”) away from private practitioners.

To the nearly 60-year-old dean, this kind of aggravation, coupled with the immense postwar challenges ahead, just seemed too daunting. As Wahl later wrote, even before the outbreak of World War II, he had recognized the “wisdom of resigning,” feeling that a “younger and more vigorous man was needed to take over the administrative duties of the entire plant.” He felt compelled to “hang on until it [WW II] was over,” yet once it finally was, he resolved to step down “as soon as the proper individual became available.”

In 1948, that man emerged in the person of 32-year-old Dr. Franklin D. Murphy, son of the late Dr. Franklin E. Murphy, who had been a longtime KU professor of clinical medicine, as well as Wahl’s mentor and “father confessor.” In marked contrast to Wahl – who admitted he “never did care for administrative work” – Murphy “exhibited the strong public relations and organizational talents that would be needed to bring the school into the mid-twentieth century.”

On July 1, 1948, the succession became official and “The Wahl Years” came to a close. In handing the reigns over to Murphy, Wahl also resigned his post as hospital superintendent. He did, however, remain pathology department chairman, continuing to teach and conduct research until his death on June 18, 1956, at the age of 70.

As Larsen and Hulston have observed, during his 24-year tenure, Wahl endured “depression, war, and inflation”; he presided over a Medical School “slow to advance beyond basic requirements”; and, in real dollars, actually saw his annual budgets decline. Conscious of his own limitations, he once confessed to “repeatedly recognizing my inadequacy in selling myself and in speaking to the public.” Indeed, the job no one else had wanted, the job he agreed to accept, was one he had cast off with manifest relief.

“At the time Dr. Wahl took over its leadership,” noted Dean Murphy, “the medical center was an institution still in its childhood – early adolescence at least…. He found here an opportunity, but little else.”

Yet while Wahl did not bequeath a great institution to his successor, he did leave one prepared to do great things. A single permanent building at 39th and Rainbow had, despite it all, become a complex of ten. New, more advanced courses had been added; new departments and residency programs had been established; public health and outreach initiatives received increased prominence; and during these “Wahl Years” at least two full generations of Kansas-trained physicians had come into the world. Indeed, writing in 1968, longtime friend and colleague Dr. Ralph Major observed that “practically all the pathologists in Greater Kansas City and for miles around … learned their skill from Wahl.”

Currently, three buildings on the KU Medical Center campus – Wahl East, Wahl West and the Wahl Annex – bear his name. These physical structures do not, however, fully represent the man’s legacy or the sum total of his influence. As the Kansas City Times noted upon his 1956 passing, “Much of the scientific soundness that has placed the University of Kansas School of Medicine in the top ranks can be traced to the devotion and skill of Dr. Harry Wahl.”

It was an apt assessment then. It remains so today.

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: Helen B. Sims, The Wahl Years at the University of Kansas Medical Center, 1919- 1948, (University of Kansas Alumni Association, 1983), pp. 4-60; Ralph H. Major, MD, An Account of the University of Kansas School of Medicine (University of Kansas Medical Alumni Association, 1968), passim; Lawrence H. Larsen and Nancy J. Hulston, The University of Kansas Medical Center: A Pictorial History, (University Press of Kansas, 1992), pp. 27-105; Nancy J. Hulston, “Our Schools Must Be Open to All Classes of Citizens”: The Desegregation of the University of Kansas School of Medicine, 1938,” Kansas History 19:2 (Summer 1996), pp. 89-97; “Concerning the Summary Dismissal of a Member of the Faculty of the School of Medicine,” (Lawrence, Kansas, September 25, 1924), a report housed in the University of Kansas Medical Center Archives; H.R. Wahl to Franklin D. Murphy (February 23, 1948); Kansas City Star (July 6, 1951); Kansas City Kansan (May 21, 1956); Kansas City Times (June 20, 1956); Kansas City Times (June 22, 1956); Clifford S. Griffin, The University of Kansas: A History (University Press of Kansas, 1974), pp. 601-606; Paul Wilson, “Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka: A Personal Perspective,” in Paul K. Stuewe, ed., Kansas Revisited: Historical Images and Perspectives, (Lawrence: 1998), p. 352.]