Johnson County is fortunate today to be home to many outstanding hospitals, clinics, doctor’s offices, and other medical facilities. But this was not always the case. In thinking about how much health has been in the news with the COVID-19 pandemic, this two-part blog will explore the history of healthcare in Johnson County.
Several trained medical doctors called Johnson County home from the time of its creation during the Kansas Territorial era. Many did not have an office as we expect today—instead, they traveled by buggy or wagon making house calls. Most illnesses and injuries were treated at home since traveling to hospitals in Kansas City was impractical and could take hours over poor roads. House calls were not quick either, as the doctor would have to be fetched. True medical emergencies and life-threatening injuries often resulted in permanent loss or even death in the 19th century. Despite working alone and at the speed of their best horse, “horse and buggy” doctors, as they were known, saved countless lives. They increased the quality of life for Johnson Countians and were important members of society in the rural county.
The earliest trained physician recorded living in the area was Dr. Johnston Lykins, and although he came in the 1830s as a Baptist missionary to the Shawnee, he did help administer smallpox vaccines. Dr. John T. Barton, who was a surgeon for the Shawnee Indians after 1850, was perhaps the first medical professional to start a practice in Johnson County. The 1874 Atlas Map of Johnson County, Kansas, a booklet with maps, a history of the county, and biographies of important residents, described Dr. Barton as “a man of fine personal appearance, an accomplished physician, with a clear head and good judgment, and altogether was a person who would attain more than ordinary local importance in any community.” By 1858, there were four doctors listed in the county, and the 1874 Atlas Map listed a half dozen or more, including a dentist, Dr. A. Doud, who lived at Cedar and Walnut Streets in Olathe.
Because of their education and prominence in society, doctors were often involved in government and leadership. Dr. W.M. Shean arrived in the Gardner area in 1857 and served in the Kansas legislature in 1861, as did Olathe’s Dr. R.E. Stevenson, who served in 1868. Dr. O.S. Laws settled near McCamish in 1856 and in 1864 became the County Superintendent of Public Instruction. Dr. Barton helped found the city of Olathe and served as county treasurer in 1858.
Following the turmoil of the Civil War, some doctors in Johnson County opened offices in towns, but many continued making house calls. Dr. Zelas Alexander Harkey was an early settler in Gardner and served as a horse and buggy doctor in the area. His son, Dr. William C. Harkey maintained offices in Gardner after earning his medical degree in 1900 from University Medical College in Kansas City, Kan. His name is still familiar to many Johnson Countians today.
Perhaps the most interesting of the horse and buggy doctors was Dr. Jessie Thomas Orr. She taught in Johnson County schools for three years before saving enough to attend the Woman’s Medical College at Northwestern University in Chicago. Earning her medical degree in 1886, she later returned to Johnson County and set up a house call practice. Dr. Orr was known for her kindness, aptitude, and the ponies that pulled her buggy. When she married in 1906, she made a strict arrangement with her husband to continue serving as a doctor (she was one of just 100 women doctors in Kansas in 1918). Governor George Hodges appointed Dr. Orr to the State Board of Health in 1913, and she was reappointed by Governor Arthur Capper. When Dr. Orr died in 1936, a lengthy obituary made clear how important her services had been for Johnson Countians over the past several decades.
Although community doctors continued to serve Johnson Countians in the countryside into the 1950s (Dr. A.S. Reece in Gardner, for example, will be highlighted in part two), with the suburbanization of the northeastern part of the county, demand for regular healthcare service and professional hospitals grew. From riding doctors to community hospitals and later to massive clinics, the history of healthcare in the county reflects the history of community growth.
For more from Johnson County Museum, check out the new Virtual Museum page. The Museum has launched a new collecting initiative around the COVID-19 pandemic and how it is impacting Johnson County and the KC Metro. Submit your thoughts, objects, and photos here.