The Archivist’s Nook: Lawrence Flick – Medical Crusader and Catholic Historian

As historians, archivists, and librarians, we address many subjects, including the history of disease. As the world of 2020 faces the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, it is worthwhile to consider another serious infectious disease that afflicted the world more than a century ago—and the man who, after surviving his own diagnosis of the disease, dedicated himself to its prevention and treatment.  The disease is tuberculosis, which primarily affects the lungs with bacteria spread person to person through tiny droplets released into the air through coughing and sneezing. The person who pioneered the research and treatment of this deadly disease was Dr. Lawrence Francis Flick (1856-1938). A devout Roman Catholic and German-American from western Pennsylvania, Flick was a dedicated medical doctor as well as a serious historian of his Church. His papers, which reside in the Special Collections of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D. C. document his work in both his fields of interest.

Portrait of Dr. Flick as First President of the American Catholic Historical Association (ACHA) in 1920. ACHA Records, Special Collections, Catholic University.

The ninth of twelve children, Flick was born on August 10, 1856, near Carrolltown in Cambria County, Pennsylvania. His parents were German immigrants with roots in Bavaria, John Flick and Elizabeth Sharbaugh (or Schabacher). He was educated at St. Vincent’s College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. It was also an adjunct to a Bavarian Benedictine Monastery, which trained priests for the order as well as the Pittsburgh diocese. After contracting Pulmonary Tuberculosis, the version that affects the lungs, Flick was forced to drop out and return home to recuperate. Somewhat better but still in poor health, Flick enrolled at Philadelphia’s Jefferson Medical College in 1877, the same year that the college became one of the first teaching medical colleges in the United States. Flick graduated in 1879 as a medical doctor and interned at Blockley, the Philadelphia charity hospital. Flick also devoted several years to curing himself, including a tour of the American west and eating an experimental diet. Apparently cured by 1883, Flick returned permanently to Philadelphia and had a remarkable career as a specialist in tuberculosis, and its prevention and treatment.[1]

Anti Tuberculosis poster of the American Lung Association, ca. 1930s, Courtesy of the Museum of Health Care.

Flick’s studies prompted him to argue that the disease was contagious and not hereditary, which contradicted the current school of thought. His efforts to isolate ‘consumptives,’ as those suffering from tuberculosis were then called, in special hospitals known as sanitariums, and to register their cases, was controversial, and opposed by many within the medical profession. Between 1892 and 1910, Flick’s efforts to educate the public prompted him to found the Pennsylvania Society for Prevention of Tuberculosis; the Free Hospital for Poor Consumptives; the Henry Phipps Institute for the Study, Prevention, and Treatment of Tuberculosis, where he was President and Medical Director from 1903 to 1910; and a sanitarium at White Haven, Pennsylvania, that he directed until 1935. His fellow Roman Catholics from all levels of society were generous in their contributions and assistance. Flick was also a promoter of the National Association for Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis (1904) and of its International Congress on Tuberculosis (1908). In addition to his fight against Tuberculosis, Flick was also in the forefront of combating the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918 in Philadelphia.

A roadside historical marker honoring Dr. Flick erected in 1959 by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission on Route 219 North, near Carrolltown, some 400 yards west of his birthplace. As a child I lived a few miles away and would frequently pass this sign while out driving with my family. Imagine my surprise years later, when beginning work as an archivist at Catholic University, to find we had the papers of this notable homeboy! [3] Photo courtesy of The Historical Markers Database.
Flick was the author of several books, including Consumption, A Curable and Preventable Disease (1903) and Tuberculosis, A Book of Practical Knowledge to Guide the General Practitioner of Medicine (1937). He also wrote many articles and book reviews that were published in The Ecclesiastical Review and the Catholic Historical Review. The latter published his 1927 magisterial article on Prince Demtri Gallitzin, the so called ‘Apostle of the Alleghenies,’ who did so much to bring the Catholic religion to the inhabitant of Flick’s native Western Pennsylvania. Flick died in Philadelphia July 7, 1938, and was buried in the cemetery of Old St. Mary’s Church. His son, Lawrence F. Flick, Jr., was a writer and editor of some note and two of Flick’s daughters wrote biographies of their father

What lesson then does Flick have for us in these times of uncertainty brought on by this pandemic? He is an example of how one person can make a difference in research, education, and, most importantly, the treatment of a terrible disease that resulted in its eventual mitigation. Flick said “Tuberculosis takes only the quitters,” those who got discouraged and gave up the struggle.[2] Flick was a fighter who would not be defeated. Perhaps someone reading this blog post will be such a person, a new Flick to defeat the Coronavirus, or some other as yet unheard of pestilence. We can only hope.

[1] James J. Walsh. ‘Dr. Lawrence F. Flick,’ The Commonweal, August 26, 1938, p. 445.

[2] Raymond Schmandt. ‘The Friendship between Bishop Regis Canevin and Dr. Lawrence Flick of Philadelphia,’ The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine (61:4), October 1978, pp. 284-286.

[3] Special Collections at CUA also houses the records of many Catholic organizations fighting disease and disaster, including the National Catholic War Council, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Charities USA, and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Also, thanks to TSK and staff for their assistance.

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2 thoughts on “The Archivist’s Nook: Lawrence Flick – Medical Crusader and Catholic Historian

  1. First citation, James J. Walsh, was a distant cousin and took my father, then at Fordham, under his wing, suggesting he study medicine not at Fordham but at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, soon to become part of Columbia University. My father did residency under him at St. Vincent’s, now sadly shuttered.

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