Wednesday, May 21, 2008

From The Circus Archives

With nearly 1,500 people on its staff, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus was truly one of the greatest shows on earth. So when typhoid struck the company while it was playing Detroit in July 1934, it was big news. Within days of the outbreak, more than 70 members of the circus (including a tightrope walker and a clown) had been hospitalized.

Thirty-nine-year-old Don W. Gudakunst, the deputy health commissioner of Detroit and a non-resident professor of preventive medicine and public health at UM hurried to the circus grounds with a team of nurses and interns to investigate. They examined the remaining company members and gave inoculations, and when the show left Detroit to play Flint, Lansing, and Kalamazoo, Gudakunst went with them. He stayed with the circus, watching for typhoid, until the show left the state.

Seven circus members ultimately died from the disease. Health officials traced its likely cause to contaminated drinking water in Pennsylvania. In the wake of the outbreak, the circus management instituted new measures designed to protect the health of its employees and its public, among them latrines with fly-proof seats, covered coolers for drinking water, single-service paper cups instead of a common dipper, and new dishwashing equipment. They also added a hospital car, the “Florence Nightingale,” to the circus train.

Gudakunst remained in Michigan until 1940, when he left to become medical director of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. He died in 1946. The Don W. Gudakunst Memorial Lectureship in the SPH Department of Epidemiology honors his legacy. Past lecturers include Albert Sabin, Jonas Salk, Thomas Francis Jr., and Pearl Kendrick.

Circus historian Giovanni Iuliani contributed to this article.