CHS is truly honored to renew and preserve the legacy of 1st Lt. William T. Fitzsimons, M.D. with a mural located on the CHS Rehabilitation & Wellness building at 409 Cross Street in Burlington.
A Burlington native, Fitzsimons entered U.S. history as the first American officer killed in World War I.
Lt. Fitzsimons was born in Burlington on April 18, 1889, to John I. & Catherine Fitzsimons. Specifics are lost to history, but one clipping stated that his mother lived on Hudson Street; another stated that relatives lived just south of Burlington.
Like most of our current medical staff, Fitzsimons graduated from the University of Kansas School of Medicine, then established a surgical practice in Kansas City and later at Roosevelt Hospital in NYC.
As Dr. Fitzsimons was establishing himself as a promising young surgeon, war broke out in Europe. The U.S. remained neutral, but several relief agencies began organizing medical and humanitarian assistance. Eager to help, Dr. Fitzsimons was among the first to volunteer.
On Sept. 7, 1914—just a year after arriving in New York—he departed for Europe. His experiences on this first mission led him to pen an article published in “Military Surgeon” regarding the treatment of gunshot wounds to the chest.
15 months later he returned to K.C., but could not ignore the escalating conflict in Europe. With the military medical corps woefully understaffed, the War Dept. was no doubt delighted to have men like Lt. Fitzsimons report for duty. He arrived in Liverpool on August 12, 1917.
Impressed by his experience and skill, commanders immediately ordered Fitzsimons to Base Hospital No. 5 in France. Sadly, his service there was brief. Just 23 days later, First Lt. William T. Fitzsimons entered U.S. history as the first American officer killed in WWI.
Paraphrasing from the book Builders of Trust: Biographical Profiles from the Medical Corps Coin:
Transport space was limited, and instead of returning the fallen soldiers to America, they were temporarily interred in France. Lt. Fitzsimons was initially buried in a British cemetery, but was later moved to a U.S. Military Cemetery in northern France. In the 1920s, the War Dept. offered to reinter the American war dead in the United States. The Fitzsimons family chose to leave their son and brother to rest peacefully in France.
In 1930, his mother was among a group of “Gold Star Mothers” who journeyed to France on a pilgrimage offered by the military. A Kansas City newspaper article at the time recorded her words. “The cemetery is a beautiful place and kept in perfect order. Most of the Gold Star Mothers, after seeing the government cemeteries, felt they had decided wisely in letting their sons lie in France.”
Lt. Fitzsimons name has a hallowed place in history. Kansas City hosts the William T. Fitzsimons Fountain (located at 12 & Troost), along with a nearby monument. The city’s American Legion Post also bears his name.
In 1920, the War Department renamed its Denver hospital the William T. Fitzsimons Hospital. During WWII, Fitzsimons was one of the largest and most modern hospitals in the world, comprising 322 buildings. With nearly 3,500 beds, Fitzsimons Hospital provided more than 1,000,000 patient days in 1945 alone--a legacy fitting of the young surgeon.
The Fitzsimons name returned to the national spotlight in 1955 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower – fittingly another Kansas boy – was treated there for five weeks following a heart attack. While they were there, First Lady Mamie Eisenhower unveiled a portrait of Lt. Fitzsimons.
During a round of base closings in the 1990s, the campus was transferred to civilian control; however, Dr. Fitzsimons’ dedication to medicine continues to live on. The new campus, which now houses the Univ. of Colorado Health Sciences Program and a host of other private enterprises, is now called the Fitzsimons Life Science District.
Somehow, over time, Fitzsimon’s story was lost in the very place it should have mattered most: his hometown. His legacy was rediscovered in 2012 when a Burlington High School graduate visiting the World War I Museum in Kansas City noticed that his hometown was listed as Burlington.
In November 2012, CHS formally dedicated the mural, painted by local artist Jim Stukey. Present at the dedication was Bishop Emeritus Father George Fitzsimons, one of the last remaining relatives.