Logan Clendening

Formerly Missouri Valley Special Collections

Dr. Logan Clendening, perhaps the most quotable figure in Kansas City history, taunted those of his readers who kept to strict diet and exercise regimens. “What’s the use?” Clendening wrote. “By giving yourself infinite trouble you may prolong your life perhaps a fortnight. Why not enjoy things as you go along?” It was precisely this brand of irreverence, humor and honesty that made Clendening one of the most popular medical men of his era.

A physician and author who sometimes blurred the line between rake and raconteur, Logan M. Clendening was born in Kansas City on May 25, 1884. His father, local commercial leader Edwin McCaig Clendening, and mother Lide Logan, reared young Logan in homes on Quality Hill, and later Merriam Place, during the heyday of those neighborhoods’ patrician cachet. He attended the University of Michigan before earning an M.D. at the University of Kansas, and continued his medical studies for a time at the prestigious University of Edinburgh.

Book cover of The Human Body
Cover of the original 1927 version of The Human Body. Courtesy of the Internet Archive.

By 1909, Clendening was back home treating patients in Kansas City, and he married Dorothy Hixon, daughter of a powerful lumberman and banker, on July 27, 1914.  Early teaching efforts at the University of Kansas Medical Center led to an assistant professorship there in 1922. Clendening’s unpredictable teaching style was the stuff of legend; he peppered lectures with bawdy stories, and classroom performances could range from Shakespearian recitation to Bronx cheer. He was later to become a full professor, and founded the school’s History and Philosophy of Medicine Department in 1939.   

But Clendening’s most famous accomplishments came as an author.  He once remarked that his mother had groomed him for a literary career, and his first efforts as a writer produced a well-received manual of internal medicine. The book came to the attention of H. L. Mencken, who recruited Clendening for a project then in the works at the Alfred A. Knopf publishing company: a guide to health and human physiology to be written by a doctor for the layman. Clendening’s resulting The Human Body, published in 1927, became one of the bestselling non-fiction titles of the 1920s and ‘30s, remained in print through the 1970s.  In Clendening the country had found a physician who told them the truth in an amusing and comprehensible style. He suffused his follow-ups, The Care and Feeding of Adults and Behind the Doctor, with the same combination of robust wit, bluntness, and knowledge of his subject, and a daily Clendening column, entitled “Diet and Health,” ran in newspapers nationwide.

Ever the dramatist, Clendening embraced his fame. Visiting celebrity friends such as Mencken, Ernest Hemingway, and Sinclair Lewis held a standing invitation to Saturday afternoon meetings of “The Vicious Circle,” an informal salon over which Clendening presided. Known for his practical jokes and publicity stunts, Clendening’s piece de resistance came in February 1939, when after repeated diplomatic attempts to silence a jackhammer in use on a construction project near his home at 56th and State Line, he donned a suit, Homburg hat, kid gloves, and button-hole carnation, strolled calmly out to the machine, and attempted to destroy it with an axe.  He was arrested and served several hours behind bars, but the incident made Clendening a folk hero. Jackhammers like the one he attacked had been in frequent use on unpopular sewer projects sanctioned by political machine boss Tom Pendergast, and many Kansas Citians cheered the doctor’s symbolic blows against a corrupt City Hall.

As in life, Clendening was dramatic and unpredictable in death. He was found, by his wife of 30 years, dead in his study the morning of January 31, 1945, having suffered massive blood loss from self-inflicted cuts to his wrist and throat. Those who had known his zest for life were shocked. However, in a newspaper column written shortly before his death, Clendening revealed deep emotional struggles, describing his indifference toward work and people, and questioning his own capacity to make the transition to old age. Although he and wife Dorothy had no children, they left a legacy to Kansas City in the personal collection of rare medical texts and ephemera that Clendening accumulated throughout his many travels. It became the basis of the Clendening History of Medicine Library and Museum at the University of Kansas Medical Center, one of the foremost repositories of its kind in the nation.

 

Acknowledgement: 

A version of this article previously appeared at http://www.kchistory.org/content/biography-logan-clendening-1884-1945-ph...

KANSAS CITY PUBLIC LIBRARY | DIGITAL HISTORY
Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict,1855-1865.
The Pendergast Years, Kansas City in the Jazz Age & Great Depression.
KC History, Missouri Valley Special Collections at the Kansas City Public Library.