By James Patton
William T. Fitzsimons was born in Burlington, Kansas, on 18 April 1889 and attended St. Mary’s Seminary before shifting to the University of Kansas (KU) School of Medicine, from which he received his MD in 1912. In September 1914, Dr. Fitzsimons felt compelled to travel to Europe to assist, in whatever way he could, those soldiers currently being ravaged by the early battles of the Great War. He spent six months treating the wounded at hospitals in England, and then crossed over to work in hospitals in Belgium, before returning home in late 1915.
Back in Kansas, Fitzsimons accepted surgical and teaching positions at the KU School of Medicine. As soon as the United States declared war on Germany, Fitzsimons joined the Army Medical Reserve Corps. He was quickly commissioned a first lieutenant, and in July 1917, steamed back across the Atlantic. KU Med School Dean Dr. M.T. Sudler later said
His voluntary return to France was made in spite of the fact that he had seen the Great War in all of its hideousness. He could have no feeling of romance, for he knew the grimness of the struggle upon which he entered; yet he felt that there was definite work which he could do; and perhaps the call came more clearly to him because of this former experience and knowledge.
The Army assigned Lt. Fitzsimons to a group of doctors called the Harvard Unit. He would serve with this unit for less than two weeks. On the night of 7 September 1917, Fitzsimons was killed during a German air attack on Base Hospital No. 5 near Dannes-Camiers in Pas-de-Calais, France. He was the first American officer and, with his comrades Pvts. Oscar Tugo, Rudolph Rubino, and Leslie Woods, one of the first four American soldiers to be killed by enemy action.
The hospital was apparently the target of the attack, a colleague (Maj. Paul Wooley, MD) later recalled: “there was nothing of military value near the hospital tent in which he was working.” Some even claimed that the American unit itself was the target. Former president Theodore Roosevelt drew the country’s attention to Fitzsimons’s death with a scathing, front-page editorial that appeared in the 17 September 1917, edition of the Kansas City Star, denouncing Germany’s “calculated brutality,” her “deliberate policy of wickedness,” and her “systematic campaign of murder against hospitals and hospital ships.”
In a moving eulogy, Dean Sudler said:
Any country is safe when such high ideals are held and practiced by its young men. This loss brings home keenly to the University of Kansas that the liberty of our country was again in jeopardy and that men were giving their all in order that democracy might live; and the future of a free country be safe-guarded.
|In 1923 St. Mary's College, Where Fitzsimons Spent Time as an Undergraduate, |
Dedicated This Arch in Honor of the Students Who Served in the War
and, Specifically, Fitzsimons Himself
KU Chancellor Frank Strong also praised Fitzsimons’s willingness to “give his life for the freedom of all humanity.” He praised Fitzsimons’s selflessness as indisputable evidence of how “our country has assumed the spiritual leadership of the world.” Strong also hoped that, in the future, all young men would be as willing as Fitzsimons to “feel the promptings of loyalty and respond so nobly to the call of their country.”
In 1920, the Army renamed its General Hospital No. 21 in Aurora, Colorado, as Fitzsimons General Hospital. The Army operated this facility until 1999, when it was turned over to the University of Colorado as the site of the Anschutz Medical Campus and the Fitzsimons Life Science District. In 1922 the William T. Fitzsimons Memorial Fountain in Kansas City, Missouri, was also dedicated to his memory. It’s still there, at Paseo and E. 12th St..
Source: The University of Kansas