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SPOTLIGHT
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Sternberg history

Published on -7/2/2012, 12:57 PM

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I had the good fortune while I was a freshman student at Fort Hays State University in 1946 to become personally acquainted with George M. Sternberg.

He lived on Elm Street in Hays near the college and could always be found in the museum at the old building I call the old library building, which is now the Department of Business Administration. He was in his late 60s when I met him, and he was still on the staff at the university. I don't believe he taught any classes, but he merely acted as curator of the museum and the items contained therein. The reason I became acquainted with him was because I was greasing a combine in Wallace County and heard a buzzing noise -- two rattlesnakes wrapped around each other. I quickly exited the ground level where I was working beneath the combine, killed the snakes and was fascinated as to why they were wrapped around each other. I told George M. Sternberg what I discovered, and he told me that I had seen a sight very rarely seen by anyone that is that the two rattlesnakes were mating. It was after that meeting that I visited with Mr. Sternberg on more than one occasion. He was an interesting conversationalist.

George M. Sternberg's father was Charles H. Sternberg, who was a brother to George Miller Sternberg, an officer in the U.S. Army serving as an assistant surgeon. He was first appointed assistant surgeon in 1861, participating in the first battle of Bull Run when he was captured by the confederates. He managed to escape and later participated in several major battles in the Civil War. In 1865 he was promoted to Brevet Captain and Major for faithful and meritorious service. In 1866, he was promoted to captain, sent to Fort Riley and took part in several expeditions against hostile Cheyenne Indians along the upper Arkansas River and western Kansas. While in western Kansas, Dr. Sternberg became interested in fossils and began collecting the leaf imprints from the Dakota Sandstone formation and shipped some of his specimens back east. Sternberg collected vertebrate fossils, including shark teeth, fish remains and other bones from the Smokey Hills chalk shale formations of western Kansas and sent the specimens back to Washington, where they were curated in the United States National Museum. Dr. Sternberg was also responsible for getting his younger brother Charles H. Sternberg started in paleontology. Charles later credited his older brother for getting many other paleontologists interested in the fossil resources in Kansas. Charles H. Sternberg was the father of the namesake of our museum here in Hays, George Miller Sternberg, who he named after his brother, the surgeon general of the United States Army.

Dr. Sternberg was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1891 and published a manual of bacteriology and researched many other infectious diseases for which he received national prominence.

He was responsible for the 1893 establishment of the Army Medical School, the precursor of Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. He was instrumental in determining the cause of yellow fever and one of his assistants was Walter Reed who later was responsible for the establishment of the hospital in Washington, known as the Walter Reed Army Hospital.

George Miller Sternberg was appointed surgeon general of the United States Army in 1893 by President Grover Cleveland and, at the time, he was advanced to the rank of brigadier general.

Dr. Sternberg retired on June 8, 1902.

I am unaware of the date of the birth of George Miller Sternberg, but suffice to say, it was through the efforts of his uncle Dr. George Miller Sternberg, later surgeon general of the U.S. Army, that led to the fossil hunting activities of his father and himself.

On Dr. Sternberg's monument in the Arlington National Cemetery, it gives credit to him as he became distinguished in his studies in the causation and prevention of infectious diseases, particularly yellow fever. He was the veteran of three wars, breveted for bravery in action in a Civil War and served as surgeon general for the U.S. Army for nine years, including the Spanish-American War. Dr. Sternberg is credited with first bringing the fundamental principles and techniques of the new science of bacteriology within the reach of the average physician.

Thomas C. Boone

Hays

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