Don’t Spit on the Sidewalk

Don’t spit on sidewalk? Interesting phrase. It used to be that bricks were the most common paving solution for sidewalks and streets, in addition to building construction.

Dr. Crumbine

Why Kansas? That’s often my question, but in this particular case, I wondered about the origin of the “Don’t Spit on Sidewalk” phrase. Aside from not wanting public infrastructure to resemble a saloon floor on a Saturday night, Dr. Samuel Crumbine, of Dodge City, Kansas, began a public health campaign against spitting tobacco and generally hocking up a phlegm and whatever organisms might be feasting in your saliva. Back in the days before proper sanitation and the danger of germs and the transfer of diseases, men, and sometimes women, spit wherever they chose.

According to the bio of Dr. Crumbine (catchy name), several things bugged him. One, he saw people drink from community cups without washing them out first, an obvious way of spreading germs. He also saw people using the same towel, over and over to wipe, cough on and even blow a nose, transferring whatever was on (and maybe inside their bodies) on the towel and the next person up. And then, while on a serene train ride, he observed tuberculosis patients spitting on the train floor. Imagine slipping and sliding on that nasty slime.

Dr. Crumbine was not just the town crier against spit, he served as the secretary of the Kansas State Board of Health for 20 years, giving him not just a pulpit but some authority to steer public policy and change health and sanitation practices. Most people who carried the tuberculosis infection showed no signs, yet they could infect others, which often happened. One out of seven who contracted TB died. Imagine in the late 1800s trying to convince the average person that they could easily infect someone with a disease that they were not ill from. Doesn’t everyone believe in science?

Dr. Crumbine believed in the control of flies and rats; and getting rid of breeding sources like foul water, animal carcasses, manure in the streets and waste disposal. What we take as common sense now, were challenging ideas then.

“We doctors had difficulty getting people to observe modern rules of hygiene and even greater difficulty in persuading them that many of their beliefs concerning health and disease were age-old superstitions without any basis in fact,” Dr. Crumbine wrote.

Meanwhile, back at the brick factory, Dr. Crumbine took his campaign to the people making bricks to get them to stamp a public service announcement directly on the bricks. This was obviously before social media, in fact, it was before indoor plumbing for most. Since people mostly walked, when they were atop of horse or in a carriage, “Don’t Spit on Sidewalk” was direct messaging. Dr. Crumbine was able to convince at least two big Kansas brick factories, one in Topeka and the other in Coffeyville, to imprint at least some of their bricks. More than a century later, these bricks are still around, in sidewalks and as collector items.

Dr. Crumbine also served as the Dean of Medicine at the University of Kansas. He was instrumental in linking the pollution of underground water to farming, oil production, stockyards, cesspools and other activities. In his spare time, Dr. Crumbine turned to the dairies, food manufactures and packing houses that were including such things as sulfuric acid, paint, lead, copper and even embalming fluid in the common foods people were ingesting. Bon appetit!

Then, in 1918 came something called the Spanish flu, which occurred while Dr. Crumbine was the leader of public health in the state. Five hundred million people were infected and an estimated 50 million died worldwide. Masking, disinfectants for cleaning (not digesting), quarantines and limits on public gatherings were used to slow the spread. What ingenious ideas!

Dr. Crumbine had an uphill battle, not just with public education, but with political leaders in Kansas and representatives of business and industry. He was attacked on religious issues, by those who labeled him spreading fake science and those claiming he was bad for the economy. He also had to battle the hucksters pedaling elixirs and false cures, who descended on towns like a religious revival. Imagine being opposed for trying to do the right thing. Thank goodness that times have changed.

A statue in honor of Dr. Crumbine across from the Kansas Capitol Building in Topeka.

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