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Borderlands: Yandell Boulevard Named for Prominent El Paso Physician 26 (2007-2008)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Yandell Boulevard Named for Prominent El Paso Physician

Article first published in Vol. 26 (2007-2008)

By Andrew Creech and Adrianna Alatorre

Only by looking the truth in the face can we go forward,” said Dr. William Martin Yandell about the rate of deaths from contagious diseases in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez in an 1892 paper he prepared for the International Medical Conference on Contagious Diseases held in Mexico City.  Concerning the prevention of diphtheria and smallpox on both sides of the Rio Grande, Dr. Yandell, who pronounced his name with the accent on the first syllable, believed that water treatment and improvement of sanitation would benefit El Paso and reduce the spread of disease. Yandell fought against superstition and lack of education with the hope of cleaning up the town, literally and figuratively. He dedicated his life and career to helping establish law and order in a city where lawlessness and dirty streets, as well as dirty politics, prevailed. 


Image caption:   Dr. William M. Yandell helped bring clean water and clean politics to El Paso.  Photo courtesy of  El Paso County Historical Society

William M. Yandell was born in 1842 near Murfreesboro, Rutherford County, Tennessee. William came from a family of doctors. His father, Dr. Lunsford P. Yandell, was a practicing physician in Louisville, Kentucky. William’s two brothers, Lunsford P. Yandell Jr. and David Wendell Yandell, attended medical school in Louisville, and David “achieved national fame as a surgeon,” according to Barbara Funkhouser, in The Caregivers: El Paso’s Medical History, 1898-1998.

Yandell enlisted in the Confederate Army in 1861, but he was discharged when the Army realized he was an asthmatic. Undeterred by the Army’s decision, he tried twice more to enlist, and the Army finally accepted him into hospital service. He was a member of the First Kentucky Brigade, which later obtained national recognition as the Orphan Brigade of Kentucky. Although Kentucky never seceded from the Union, several of its military units helped the Confederate cause. When the men left the state in 1862, they were unable to return as a unit during the war. Behind enemy lines and cut off from supplies, recruits and mail from home, they also lost two of their commanders in 1863; hence the name “orphan.” Observing and living in the deplorable conditions of these units made a big impression on Yandell.

Janet Y. Brockmoller, in her tribute speech for Dr. Yandell’s entrance into the Hall of Honor (in Password xxvii, 152) of the El Paso Historical Society, emphasized that Yandell would spend the rest of his life teaching the importance of “cleanliness and disease prevention” after his military experience. Yandell’s experience in the hospital corps must have counted toward his degree in medicine, according to Brockmoller, and he graduated with honors from medical school in Louisville, Kentucky, where his father and brothers also studied.

Yandell then spent 18 months in Mexico, learning to speak and write Spanish. He moved to Seguin, Texas, in 1870 and entered the newspaper business. In her speech, Brockmoller said that he owned and edited the Guadalupe Times in Seguin, becoming a respected journalist, contributing also to state and national newspapers in English and Spanish. Funkhouser wrote that he would remain involved with the newspaper business until his death.

Yandell was invited to become a member of the National Editorial Association. He also helped establish the Texas Press Association and served as the first president. Widely known in Texas by this time, he forged ties with two prominent families of Guadalupe County: the Burges and Rust families. Through these connections, he met his future wife, Nannie Rust, sister of Bettie Rust, who was married to William H. Burges Sr.

In search of relief for his asthma, Yandell came to El Paso in 1886 because of its dry warm climate, ideal for persons suffering respiratory ailments. After completing post graduate courses in sanitary medicine in Denver, Colo., Yandell accepted a position as El Paso county physician and served as such the rest of his life. Funkhouser wrote that as chief health officer, Yandell pushed the message of sanitation and worked for an adequate sewer system for El Paso.

In the pamphlet “Contagious Diseases on the Rio Grande Border,” Yandell wrote, “For three years (1889-1891), Juárez show[ed] a death rate from contagious diseases six and one-half times greater than El Paso.” Yandell believed that with required precautionary measures such as whitewashing walls; burning furniture, dresses and bedding of infected victims; isolating the sick; and discontinuing attendance of family members at public gatherings, including school, the smallpox epidemic that raged along the border could be eradicated. Yandell found that Juárez and its population objected to such precautionary measures.

Yandell maintained that unless the law intervened, death from infectious disease would continue to plague both sides of the border. He wrote, “The laws for the protection of the public health, except in our Mexican villages, are more strictly enforced in our country than in Mexico, because the masses in our country fear contagious diseases, while the masses in Mexico do not.”  He also noted that in El Paso, “the maximum penalty for failure to report a case of contagious disease is a fine of one hundred dollars and thirty days in jail.”

Yandell married Nannie Rust in 1878, and the couple had one daughter who died in early childhood. Although they had no more children, the couple still impacted the life of their nephews, the three Burges boys  – William Henry, Richard Fenner and Alfred Rust – whom they helped raise after the death of Nannie’s sister, Bettie. The Yandell and Burges families established a lifelong alliance. The boys grew up to be well-educated, vigilant reformists who, with the help of their uncle, initiated a campaign to extinguish gambling and corruption within El Paso

“Dr. Yandell always manifested a keen interest in governmental affairs and was a distinguished figure at many state conventions,” wrote Funkhouser. According to Ken Flynn, author of Historic El Paso: An Illustrated Story, Yandell, along with Waters Davis and his two brothers, William H. and Richard F. Davis, established the Law and Order League in 1890. Flynn wrote that in the late 1800s the early reform movement hoped to eradicate the “wild male-dominated frontier days” with their prevalence of prostitution and gambling.

William H. Burges Jr. and his brother Richard F. Burges, both lawyers, followed their Aunt Nannie and Dr. Yandell to El Paso, arriving  in 1889 and 1892 and set up practice. They also became involved in reform politics, along with their uncle. In the biography Texas Lawyer: The Life of William H. Burges, author J. F. Hulse wrote that Yandell used his prominence to influence El Pasoans tired of partisan politics. In one speech in 1895, Yandell  told the crowd, “I have come to the conclusion that there shall be no more party strings on me. … The Independent movement is solely to maintain good moral government in El Paso and good waterworks.”

Although it took several years before reform candidates won in El Paso, Yandell, Burges and others fought crooked politicians for the benefit of El Paso. Both men impacted the future of El Paso, providing non-partisan government and clean water. Yandell even initiated a door-to-door campaign, obligating homeowners to clean up their properties. At times, he was accosted by angry property owners who resented the measures taken by the county physician. In 1893, Governor James S. Hogg named Yandell state quarantine officer, a post he held under two other governors.

On the evening of March 23, 1900, Dr. Yandell took his own life by a self-inflicted gunshot to the temple, according to an obituary in the next day’s issue of the El Paso Times. The doctor had suffered from asthma attacks most of his life and according to Brockmoller, by 1898 “his health had become visibly poor.”  He was survived by his wife Nannie and other relatives. His nephew William H. Burges took his body to Seguin for burial.

Yandell was successful in bringing clean water and a modern sewer system to El Paso, according to Brockmoller. In addition, he was a walking public relations campaign for life in El Paso. He wrote, “El Paso has … the best winter climate in the United States for consumptives, asthmatics and persons suffering from other chronic pulmonary diseases.” His enthusiastic comments were published in a 10-page booklet distributed throughout this country as well as abroad.

His last name, although now most often pronounced with the accent on the last syllable, joined the name of Boulevard, the longest street in the city, when the city council honored him in 1920. Most El Pasoans today can readily identify Yandell Boulevard, but few know anything about the man behind the name.

Although the passing of the doctor came as a shock to everyone, his valiant efforts for reform and morality would not be overshadowed by the events of his death. Many regarded Yandell as a straightforward, conscientious human being who put the needs of the many ahead of his own. With the efforts of the Davis brothers, petitions to Mayor C.R. Morehead would soon lead to the beginning of the end of gambling and prostitution. Ken Flynn said of this movement,  “Many [saloons, brothels and dance halls] returned later and went into hiding, but the days of the wide-open frontier were over.”

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