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Jul 30

Kansas Board of Health. Part 2, The Fly Must Go

Posted on July 30, 2020 at 3:08 AM by Bill Sowers

Kansas Board of Health. Part 2, The Fly Must Go
written by Donna Casement, State Library of Kansas


Fly hovering over the city

(Full digitized copies of newspaper articles cited here can be found at KGI ONLINE LIBRARY)

 What is health? “Health is a state of physical, mental and moral equilibrium, a normal functioning of body, mind, and soul. It is a state when work is a pleasure, when the world looks good and beautiful, and the battle of life seems worthwhile. Health is the antithesis of disease, degeneracy, and crime.” -Dr. S. J. Crumbine, M. D., Secretary (April 1907, Bulletin of the Kansas State Board of Health)


In 1904, Dr. Samuel J. Crumbine became the Secretary of the Kansas State Board of Health after serving on the board since 1899. In his first report as Secretary to Governor Hoch dated February 1, 1905, he wrote, “The general health of the state of Kansas for the years 1906 to 1904 have been fairly good. It will be noticed, however, in the table of contagious diseases reported for these two years, that the communicable diseases were more widely spread throughout the state the past year than in the previous year. The largest fatalities reported among communicable diseases are those of typhoid fever and diphtheria.” (1903-1904, First Biennial Report of the State Board of Health)

One year after becoming Secretary, Dr. Crumbine determined that an informative monthly report, called “The Bulletin of the Kansas State Board of Health”, would become a public health resource for statewide public health officers and the public. The Bulletin contained statewide vital statistics on contagious diseases, notes on sanitary progress and abstracts of scientific papers. The Bulletin would evolve into a valuable resource for the board’s public campaigns against contagious diseases. 

1 July 1905 State Board of Health Bulletin
“We have outgrown the mimeograph page, and trust that the usefulness and importance of the Board have kept pace with its need of more space. It is our hope to make the Bulletin of sufficient scientific value, with fresh up-to-date news items, as to be welcomed by the sanitary family from month to month,” said Secretary Crumbine. (July 1905, Bulletin of the Kansas State Board of Health)

One of the board’s first actions was a campaign to prevent and control the spread of tuberculosis, a contagious disease that had no mandatory case reporting at that time. In 1905, pulmonary tuberculosis, “The Great White Plague”, claimed 960 victims in Kansas and had a death rate of 63.7% per 100,000 population of counties reporting. (1905-1906, Third Biennial Report of the State Board of Health)

Board of Health Part 2 Chart of Diseases
The attention of board health officials became focused on reporting, managing and preventing tuberculin cases and the development of a public health campaign that would focus on the role of the house fly in the transmission of contagious diseases. In Crumbine’s autobiography, he wrote, “What made our tuberculosis campaign something in the nature of a crusade and lent it immense emotion, was mainly the public’s fear of tuberculosis.” (Frontier Doctor: The Autobiography of a Pioneer on the Frontier of Public Health, Samuel J. Crumbine, M.D., c. 1948)

“There is a move on foot to knock out the housefly. The scientists and bacteriologists and health officers are after the house fly and say that it is only a question of time until they have her going south. The female house fly, which is the only member of the family worth considering, is a bird of great perseverance and marvelous productive powers. She can rise in the morning, knock the dust out of her eyes with her front legs; then settle down to business, and by evening be the mother of some 7 million anxious and energetic children.” (#1-Turon Weekly Press, March 29, 1906)

One of the first public health campaigns included an anti-fly crusade that would target the fly as a convector of the community spread of contagious diseases, including tuberculosis. The April 1907 Bulletin was the first “Fly” bulletin and provided an in-depth description of the life cycle of the fly. 

“There is a general impression that house-flies sometimes bite people, but this is entirely wrong. Its mouth parts are fitted for sucking and lapping-up liquids, and not for piercing.” The article went on to say, “Sometimes when a house-fly is examined, it will be seen to be fairly covered with little reddish objects, which are really living creatures. They are parasitic mites that attach themselves to the bodies of the house-flies. (April 1907, Bulletin of the Kansas State Board of Health).

A day at a ballpark would be instrumental in the creation of a catchy fly slogan that would be used for the new anti-fly campaign. Dr. Crumbine wrote in his autobiography Frontier Doctor, that this day would be the most productive day’s work in his life.


“That afternoon I had gone to the opening baseball game of the season. Topeka belonged to the Western League and was evenly matched that day, as the score shows. At the end of the eighth inning, it was 2 to 2. And now came the dramatic moment, one forever golden to me! With one out and a Topeka runner on third base, the next batter came to the plate and excited fans began yelling in unison, “Sacrifice fly! Sacrifice fly! Sacrifice fly! But when the first ball was pitched, the batter swung and missed, whereupon a voice boomed, “Swat that ball!” and another voice boomed, “Swat the ball!....swat the ball. I have it, I have it, I have it: "Swat the Fly!" (Frontier Doctor: The Autobiography of a Pioneer on the Frontier of Public Health, Samuel J. Crumbine, M.D., c. 1948)

The first phase of the anti-fly campaign was the development and distribution of a Swat the Flypamphlet. This pamphlet included a four-part “moving picture” script and a two-page, question and answer segment entitled “House Fly Catechism”. There was also a yearly 10” x 16” fly poster, depicting the habits and dangers of the fly, sent to every community in the state. 

Swat the Fly Pamphlet at Kansas Memory
               (Image from kansasmemory.org, Kansas Historical Society. Copy and reuse restrictions apply)

The Hutchinson News wrote, “Swat the Fly" is the title of a pamphlet being issued by the Kansas Board of Health. This may be good advice figuratively, but not literally. Did you ever try to swat a fly? How often, O, how often you have! And how often, O how often you have succeeded only in raising a welt over your eye or in planting a resounding and stinging slap on your neck. The fly never stays there to be swatted. It always leaves a fraction of a second too soon and while you are wincing from the stinging sensation, you hear it sweetly buzzing around your head. If at first you don’t succeed, swat, swat again.” (#2-Hutchinson News, August 12, 1908)

Medical doctors throughout the state were appreciative of the board’s efforts in its anti-fly campaign. Dr. James Ball, M.D. from Ottawa sent a letter to Dr. Crumbine dated August 3, 1908.

“Dear Sir-Permit me to congratulate you upon the vigorous fight you are making against flies. That these house insects are a greater source of infectious disease than the public is generally aware was made very clear to me recently when I had an occasion to make an examination of sputum for tubercle bacillus. 

I was greatly surprised to find what appeared to be something alive. Upon closer examination, they proved to be the larvae of the ordinary house-fly, all alive (the common maggot). The sputum contained quantities of tubercle bacilli, which was confirmed by Doctor Greenfield, state bacteriologist. This seems clearly to show that under certain conditions the human sputum becomes a breeding-place for the ordinary housefly and if the sputum should contain tubercle bacilli it can readily be seen how a swarm of flies hatching under these conditions can be a prolific source of infection for tuberculosis.” (September 1908-Bulletin of the Kansas State Board of Health)   

Fly with weapons and Screens pics
Anti-fly pamphlets and posters were sent yearly by the Board to every post office in the state and were accompanied by the following letter:

 “TO THE POSTMASTERS-I am sending you another copy of the fly poster with the request that you display it in the post office in place of the one which we sent to you last year, as that one is no doubt more or less spoiled at this time. Nine thousand copies of the April BULLETIN, devoted exclusively to the fly campaign, were sent over the state.” -S. J. Crumbine, M. D., Secretary, May 21, 1910. (1909-1910, Fifth Biennial Report of the State Board of Health)

City mayors were also sent anti-fly literature that included suggested ordinances for their communities:

“May 2, 1910, GENTLEMEN-Under separate cover I am sending you a copy of our annual fly BULLETIN and invite your attention to the suggested ordinance, which if enacted and enforced will, we believe, do much towards abating the fly nuisance.” -Very truly yours, S. J. Crumbine, M. D., Secretary (1909-1910, Fifth Biennial Report of the State Board of Health)   

Swat the Fly and Screens pics
The Chanute Daily Tribune headlined, SWAT THE FLY, SAYS THE MAYOR. Within the article Mayor Abbot said, “The hottest season of the year is upon us-the time of year when certain diseases are prevalent, when it is most difficult to be sanitary and law abiding, when ants, flies, worms and other insect life abounds, to harass us and scatter infection far and wide. The fly is an enemy of the human race and it is important to eradicate the disease-carrying fly, especially in a home. Don’t allow a single fly in your house, any more than you would a rattlesnake or a cat with the rabies. If by accident, one or more get in, swat them with a King fly killer.” (#3-The Chanute Daily Tribune, July 22, 1910)

The first wire mesh, fly killing device, was called the Fly Killer and patented on January 9, 1900 by Robert R. Montgomery, of Decatur, Illinois. It was later advertised as the “King Fly Killer” or the often used generic term, the fly bat. The Crumbine slogan, “Swat the Fly” quickly replaced the previous names of the fly killing devices and it became known as the fly swatter, a term that is commonly used today.

Fly swatters

In 1910, the editor of The Wichita Beacon asked Dr. Crumbine to tell the paper’s readers how Kansas could get rid of the flies. The paper included a photo of Dr. Crumbine and a leg of a fly within the article.

Crumbine and fly leg pics
Dr. Crumbine responded to the paper’s request and wrote, “We are urging upon the various municipalities of the state, the passage of ordinances compelling the removal of manure piles at least every 10 days during the season from April 1 to Nov. 1, that many days being the breeding cycle of the fly and that decaying vegetable matter and other fly-breeding places be properly disposed of.” The paper also reported on the involvement of women’s clubs throughout Kansas and highlighted their organization of semi-annual citywide cleanups. “A clean yard and a screened house, multiplied by as many yards and houses as there are in the state, will make the fly as scarce in Kansas as the snake is in Ireland,” (#4-The Wichita Beacon, May 3, 1910)

Clean up your yard poster

 In the spring of 1911, a letter from a Boy Scout in Weir City, a town of 3,000 in eastern Kansas, was sent to Dr. Crumbine.  The young man offered to distribute some of Dr. Crumbine’s fly posters. “Dr. Crumbine was quick to see the possibilities in the Boy Scouts. He suggested a plan for a general town cleanup in Weir, to be undertaken and managed entirely by them.” The plan adopted by the Weir Boy Scouts divided the city of Weir into districts and themselves into squads. (#6-The Garden City Telegram, May 28, 1912)


“Dr. Crumbine’s suggestion puts up to the Boy Scout movement an opportunity of real service to public health. They could not engage in a better war than for the extermination of the pestiferous house fly by all means at their command and if they take up this challenge, they will do something for their country in good earnest.” (#7-The Chanute Times, April 28, 1911)

Report on the work of the Kansas Boy Scouts was sent to the Boy Scout headquarters in New York, just as the second edition of the Scout handbook was being prepared. The timeliness of the information resulted in giving sanitation work a permanent place in the manual. Mr. West, National Boy Scouts of America’s secretary, wrote to the leader of the Kansas movement at the time. “I have brought your work to the attention of Colonel Roosevelt, and he is immensely interested in what you are doing.” (March 1919, Bulletin of the Kansas State Board of Health

Scout stabbing fly and Six Strategic Moves
In the March 1919 Bulletin, step-by-step guidelines were given for the planning of a citywide cleanup. The Bulletin even suggested, “A mass meeting at the moving-picture theater may be made a means of awakening public interest. There are good films available showing the evils of filth as a producer of disease.” (March 1919, Bulletin of the Kansas State Board of Health

The Great Bend Tribune newspaper encouraged their local Boy Scouts to copy the efforts being seen in Weir with an article entitled “A Tip for Boy Scouts” with the sub-headline, “They Might Do the Same Thing Here in Great Bend”. “The boys are making enough fly swatters to put two in every home in the town and every person will be asked to swat a fly every hour. A druggist in Weir gave five-hundred-yard stick and a hardware man gave them the fly screen to make the swatters. They also made two hundred fly traps that were going to be distributed in various parts of the town.” (#8-The Great Bend Tribune, May 12, 1911)

Two pictures of boy scouts
The “Swat the Fly” campaign garnered the attention of Kansas, the nation and across the world. The health board, under the leadership of Dr. Crumbine, spearheaded other health campaigns, such as the elimination of the common cup and common roller towel, as well as the practice of spitting on sidewalks and public streets. These campaigns would produce life changing public health legislation for the citizens of Kansas. 


The Kansas Board of Health, Part 3 will highlight the interaction between the health board’s campaigns and the resulting laws that governed public health in Kansas in the early twentieth century.

Read the other two parts of this series on the Kansas State Board of Health early history: