Why was there a huge steel tank at 33rd and Harrison in the 1920s?

This vintage postcard gives no details about “the tank,” which was sitting in the yard of 3310 Harrison in North Hyde Park in the 1920s. But a little research turned up numerous news articles from the day about its purpose, and highlighted the negative reactions from neighbors in what is now the North Hyde Park neighborhood.

By Mary Jo Draper

I recently stumbled upon a vintage postcard that showed a huge metal structure called “the tank” at 3310 Harrison. A little research turned up a fascinating story about the tank and the reaction of the neighbors in the North Hyde Park neighborhood when it was in place in the 1920s.

Kansas City Star, April 20, 1924.

The Kansas City tank is part of what has been called one of the strangest experiments in medical history. “The tank” was an invention of Dr. Orval J. Cunningham, on the staff of the University of Kansas Hospital in the early 1900s and the operator of a sanitarium in the North Hyde Park neighborhood where the tank sat in the 1920s. Prodded by a desire to help save Kansas City patients from the flu epidemic in 1918, Cunningham put his inventive talents to work to test out a theory – that some diseases such as diabetes, cancer and syphilis were caused by living organisms that fail to grow in the presence of oxygen.

Cunningham theorized that compressed air could restore health by restoring oxygen to the blood. His experimental hyperbaric tank caused a variety of reactions: a millionaire wanted to fund its wider application; Midtown Kansas City residents complained about its impact on their property values; and the American Medical Association denounced Cunningham for “advancing a thesis that is altogether without scientific proof.” And after the experiment in Kansas City, Cunningham moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he built an even larger steel structure.

As part of our Uncovering History Project, the Midtown KC Post is taking a look at each block in Midtown, including a set of 1940 tax assessment photos which is available for many blocks. (Many people seem confused by the tax assessment photos, which all include a man holding a sign. Here’s the story behind them).  Today, an in-depth look at 3310 Harrison. Next week, details about the history of the rest of the block from 33rd to 34th between Campbell and Harrison.

Who was Orval Cunningham?

The scientist behind this experimental treatment facility, Dr. Orval Cunningham, first shows up in local history as the chief anesthetist of the University of Kansas School of Medicine in 1916. According to two researchers (Orval Cunningahm: The Man, His Machine, His Tank in Kansas City and Cleveland, by Anthony L. Kovac, M.D. and George S. Bause, M.D., University of Kansas Medical Center), Cunningham had invented an early anesthesia machine, but when the 1918 flu epidemic hit, his attention shifted from anesthesia to creating a “therapeutic (hyperbaric) apparatus.” He based his theory on his observation that people with lung disease improved when they moved from Denver to Kansas City, and wondered if that was because of lower atmospheric pressure.

“He designed and built a tank at the University of Kansas Hospital in 1918 and credited it for saving the lives of two people seriously ill with pneumonia. He then began testing the tank for treatment of hypertension, diabetes and syphilis.”

Cunningham Moves His Research to Midtown

In 1920, Cunningham revealed the purpose of a giant steel tank (seen above) that had appeared in the side yard of 3310 Harrison. He told the Kansas City Star that, based on the success of treatments at the University of Kansas, the tank would be used in treating disorders by introducing more oxygen into the lungs. The tank, 80 feet long and 10 feet in diameter, was divided into 36 compartments on each side of a long hall. The tank resembled a Pullman train car and was, in fact, outfitted with beds supplied by that company. The compartments had showers, dressing rooms and closets so that patients could sleep in the tank.

The neighbors of the Cunningham Sanitarium reacted negatively to its operation in the quiet residential area. They complained for months about the noise and vibrations of the engines required to ran the tank. They worried people with communicable diseases were being housed there. They asked a judge to bar patients from sitting in the yard “or walk on canes or crutches as their presence might have a depressing effect on others in the neighborhood.” The judge agreed.

Another incident also raised a public concern – the escape of one of Dr. Cunningham’s monkeys which neighbors said terrorized the neighborhood.

In the end, it wasn’t the complaints of neighbors, but a tantalizing offer from a wealthy financier, that led Cunningham to abandon his tank in Kansas City and build an even bigger hyperbaric chamber in Cleveland.

Cunningham Moves to Cleveland, and An Even Bigger Tank

H.H. Timken, known as the “Baron of Bearings,” was the board chairman of the Timken Roller Bearing Company in Canton, Ohio. After a friend (or Timken himself, according to some accounts) underwent what he considered successful treatment in Kansas City, Timken made Dr. Cunningham an offer that eventually lead to this national newspaper announcement.

“One of the strangest experiments in the history of science’s long fight against disease – a project involving cold steel and the expenditure of a cold $1,000,000 – is thrilling, baffling and making skeptical the residents of Cleveland, Ohio.” Beaumont Journal, Sept. 28, 1928

Courtesy Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

Timken gave Cunningham a million dollars, and the doctor oversaw construction of a five-story, 900-ton steel ball, 64 feet high, with 38 rooms. The ball had a first-floor dining room, a top floor reception room, and three floors of bedrooms.

The Cleveland Cunningham Sanitarium was located outside of residential areas, but criticism was already coming from a new direction was the facility was completed. The American Medical Association warned patients to be skeptical of Cunningham’s claims.

Dr. Cunningham claims unusual results in the treatment of such serious conditions as diabetes, syphilis, carcinoma and pernicious anemia, but has published no case reports or furnished the medical profession with any evidence to support the claims. To explain his alleged results, Dr. Cunningham advances a thesis that is altogether without scientific proof, namely, that diabetes mellitus, pernicous anemia and carcinoma are due to an anaerobic form of pathogenic bacteria. Under the circumstances, is it to be wondered at if the medical profession looks askance at the ‘tank treatment’ and intimates that it seems tinctured much more strongly with economics than with scientific medicine?” It is a mark of the scientist that he is ready to make available the evidence on which his claims are based. Dr. Cunningham has been given repeated opportunities to present such evidence. Journal of the AMA, May 5, 1928, pp. 1494-96

Cunningham ran the sanitarium in Cleveland until 1934, when it was sold and then closed in 1937. The site, and the huge steel ball, sat unused until 1942, when it was dismantled to be used as scrap metal during the war.

I have found no details on what happened to the Kansas City tank, but would love to hear anything readers might know.

Beaumont, Texas Journal, March 28, 1928

UPDATE: March 9, 2018

Our readers DID have more information about this fascinating story.

A view of the machinery that powered the tank. Courtesy John Dawson.

 

Inside “The Tank” at 3310 Harrison, where patients could live for a period of hours or days under an air pressure of 5 – 30 pounds above normal depending upon the disease to be treated. The “Tank” was located in the south side yard. Foundations of the “tank” are all that remain today. Courtesy Ron Briscoe and Lisa Lassman Briscoe.

 

The house at 3310 Harrison, location of “The Tank”, located in the south side yard. Between treatments, patients lived in the residence at 3310 Harrison. Very little of the interior of the home was altered. Foundations of the “tank” are all that remain today. Courtesy Ron Briscoe and Lisa Lassman Briscoe.

3 Comments

  1. Rose says:

    interesting! thanks for sharing all this great history!

  2. Sharon Smart says:

    Mary Jo, I did enjoy reading the stories about the tank, Dr. Cunningham, and about the monkey.

    Thank you for writing the information.

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