Dr. Harriet Adams was a pioneer in the medical profession, and not just because she was female.
An 1894 graduate of the Kansas Medical College, Dr. Adams practiced in Topeka for many years from an office on Kansas Avenue.
She shared the family homestead in College Hill with her older sister, Zu Adams, who was the librarian for the Kansas State Historical Society, and organization founded by their father. The Adams family came to Kansas in 1854, the year the territory was opened for settlement.
Even before earning her medical degree, Harriet spent much of her time nursing family members, including her mother, who died in 1886. Perhaps to give her a break from care-giving, her father after that took Harriet to a spa, and there they learned the health benefits of choosing grains –Shredded Wheat, specifically – over a more traditional protein filled breakfast.
She was progressive in embracing new medical techniques.
In 1902, Dr. Adams contracted diphtheria. Frequently fatal, this disease affected the throat and tonsils. Complications included myocarditis, paralysis and kidney failure.
Today, diphtheria is almost unheard of in the United States. Only two cases have been recorded this century. Children are vaccinated three times before they start school with a combination shot that prevents diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough, all of which can be fatal.
But in 1902, vaccines were rare. Medical science was just starting to figure them out. In the meantime, they looked for cures and treatments for the contagious diseases that regularly took children’s lives.
Harriet Adams was among the more progressive in her profession. When she became ill with diphtheria, she decided to take the cure that was available at the time. Diphtheria has a 50 percent fatality rate untreated. Even today, it is fatal to 10 percent of those who do get treatment.
In 1902, there was an anti-toxin. Dr. Adams was back on her feet in two days after taking it.
After hearing of her quick recovery, though, another doctor in Topeka disputed not only the use of the anti-toxin, but whether the affliction was even diphtheria.
Speaking anonymously to the Topeka State Journal (it wouldn’t be professional to go on the record, the doctor said), this physician claimed there was no diphtheria in Topeka at all. The reports were just a means to create the opportunity to experiment with anti-toxin, he said.
The newspaper said the disease had been unusually fatal that fall, killing four children and one adult. And the deaths weren’t confined to one area of the city.
“Anti-toxin is worse than vaccination,” the physician said, “and vaccination is bad enough.”
The anti-toxin was created by dosing a horse with live diphtheria virus. Once symptoms appeared and subsided, more virus was injected, with increasing doses until the horse showed no reaction to the virus. At this point, blood was drawn from the horse and injected into the vein of the ailing human. The belief was that the horse’s blood contained anti-diphtheria germs that would then multiply in the human and kill off the virus.
Another physician was allowed to comment anonymously to counter the doubter.
“Anyone who says there is no diphtheria in Topeka manifests most surprising ignorance,” the second expert said. He went on to state that two of the fatalities had been treated by doctors who didn’t believe in the anti-toxin.
“The cures effected by anti-toxin are marvelous because they are so swift and sure,” the second physician said.
The debate no doubt continued until a vaccine was introduced in the 1920s.
Beyond family reminiscences, not much has been documented about Dr. Adams’ life or practice.
Learn more about pioneering women in Topeka with the podcast from the Ordinary Extraordinary Cemetery.
Historic Topeka Cemetery is a setting unlike any other in Topeka. The grounds offer an eternal view for those who shaped Topeka and Kansas from territorial days into the 21st century. The city skyline, with the Statehouse standing prominently in the center, can be seen from nearly every part of Topeka Cemetery.
On a rolling hillside east of downtown, Topeka Cemetery is an outdoor museum of stunning monuments that help tell the stories of the more than 35,000 people in our care.
We encourage you to visit, to take a stroll among the names familiar to you from street signs and businesses, and from family and friends, to reflect on the beauty of this spot and the lives of those who came before you.
Social distancing at funerals can be difficult, so Topeka Cemetery offers its Garden Chapel for services. This covered patio has room for people to stand apart and still participate in the service. Having the service outside may feel safer than indoor venues.
Office staff at Topeka Cemetery will wear masks when working within six feet of customers. If you have a mask, we appreciate your wearing it when you come inside.
While you are on the grounds, please respect others by maintaining a safe distance.
Maps showing locations of your loved ones can be found through the Search Records tab on this website. If you need further help, maps and instructions can be emailed to you.
Headstones can be purchased via email. Call the office to discuss size, color and theme, and we will email designs to you.
Payments on accounts can be made by credit or debit card over the phone or mailed in.
If you are wishing to purchase spaces, call the office to discuss what is available near family members or to learn more about what is available. A staff member will meet you on the grounds and help you find just the right spot while maintaining safe distancing.
Finding your loved ones
Topeka Cemetery has 80 acres that stretch from SE 10th Avenue to Interstate 70 and from Lafayette Street to California Avenue. Finding family members among the 35,000 souls who rest here can be a challenge.
Whether on your first visit or your 10th, it can sometimes be difficult to get to the right spot.
Enter Walk-to-Site. You can use your smart phone to guide you. Start by clicking on Search Records. Enter the name of the person you wish to find. On some phones, you may need to move the screen left to find the place to enter the last name.
If the person you seek doesn’t come up first, hit the “Next” button. That will scroll through the names that are similar.
If you get no results, try a different spelling or use just a first initial on the first name.
The large map will show you where you need to be, so you can drive to the general area before beginning your walk.
Please keep in mind that not every grave has a headstone. If you find no memorial, Topeka Cemetery is happy to assist you in finding the perfect tribute to your loved one.
More instruction is available on YouTube.
Points of interest
We consider ourselves an outdoor museum with hundreds of beautiful and interesting monuments! EXPLORE!
Friends of Historic Topeka Cemetery
The Friends have a mission to support Historic Topeka Cemetery in its efforts to preserve its grounds and buildings, promote Topeka and Kansas history, and educate Topekans on the legacies created by their forebears – the extraordinary and the ordinary, the famous and the infamous, the entrepreneur and the artist.
The Friends offer tours, including Ghost Tours in October; put on events such as Memorial Day and Veterans Day programs; and offer opportunities to remember your loved ones in unique ways.