Whether it was called consumption, phthisis, scrofula, Pott's disease, or the White Plague, tuberculosis was the leading cause of death in the U.S. throughout the 19th and part of the 20th century. Millions of people all over the continent lived with chronic, debilitating infections; many more died. A number, though, managed to beat the disease and went on to healthy lives.
The History of Tuberculosis
Tuberculosis had been identified in 1882 by a Prussian physician, Robert Koch, who determined that a bacillus, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, was the causative agent of the disease. By 1906 a vaccine had been developed, but it was not used on humans until 1921 in France, and was not disseminated widely in the U.S. until after World War II. Further research eventually resulted in an antibiotic treatment in 1952; it was this treatment that made the difference for millions of TB sufferers.
Before effective antibiotic treatment, however, tuberculosis was everywhere. Opening up any newspaper, one would find obituaries for people of all ages and conditions who died of “consumption,” or the “wasting disease.” Genealogists today may find records of ancestors and relatives who died young, often with no explanation for the early death.
The researcher can start by looking at the location of the death. TB patients who could not afford expensive and time-consuming treatments simply stayed at home, doing the best they could to take care of themselves and their families, growing weaker every day. Their obituaries may, or may not, provide the cause of death. However, those lucky people who could afford to spend a year in a sanitarium, resting and eating well, had a chance at regaining their health. Many sanitarium patients, however, even with the best care available at the time, did not recover.
The Start of Tuberculosis Sanitariums
The sanitarium movement began in Germany in the second half of the 19th century, and by 1877 such facilities had spread throughout Europe. The first U.S. sanitarium was founded by Edward L. Trudeau in 1885: the Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium at Saranac Lake, in New York. Other East Coast sanitariums soon followed, including the Sharon Sanatorium near Boston in 1890. Other areas, such as Asheville, North Carolina, also became home to numbers of TB facilities.
The philosophy of treatment for tuberculosis was relatively simple. Provide good food, lots of fresh air (even in New England in the winter time), and inactivity. Patients were required to lie in bed day and night, with very little in the way of occupation. Even reading and writing letters was discouraged in some facilities, as any activity was considered a hindrance to recovery.
Tuberculosis Sanitariums in the Western U.S.
Western states soon developed their own facilities, advertising to city-bred sufferers that clean mountain or desert air was far superior to Eastern locales. By 1900 one fourth of the migrants to California, and a third of those who came to Colorado made the trip for health reasons. Towns such as Pasadena (CA), Colorado Springs and Denver (CO), Tucson (AZ), El Paso (TX), and Albuquerque (NM) were settled by large numbers of TB patients and their families. Some smaller towns were founded by TB sufferers: Sierra Madre (CA), Silver City (NM), and San Angelo (TX) are included in this group.
Western towns often promoted the healthful qualities of their climate, hoping to lure TB patients and their families as settlers. The Albuquerque Civic Council published a flyer in 1925 designed to attract patients – it reads in part, “The fact that Albuquerque is practically made up of people who have either regained their health here or have come with others who have, accounts for the unique tone of the city, its air of cheerfulness and of easy living, and its inspiring example for new arrivals. A person with incipient or active tuberculosis cannot withstand damp, foggy, penetrating weather. He needs rest, fresh air, and good food, and a total absence of the rigorous northern and eastern winters and the humid, sticky, damp summers.”
Genealogy and Tuberculosis
Researchers who find that an ancestor or relative died far from home should consider the possibility that the person was seeking treatment for tuberculosis at a sanitarium. If the ancestor died there, the genealogist should obtain the probate packet, which can contain information about the decedent’s last address and disposition of the body. Final invoices for treatment and incidentals may also be included, along with bills from funeral homes.
Even if the ancestor simply died in an unfamiliar place not known for tuberculosis hospitals or sanitariums, genealogists should check to see if there were sanitariums in the area. Not all patients entered hospitals, though – many smaller facilities, even boarding houses, took in tuberculosis sufferers.
Although the number of tuberculosis cases fell steadily after the development of antibiotics and vaccines, cases began to rise again in the 1980s, due to a variety of causes. In addition, there are now thousands of patients with multidrug-resistant strains, so that the fight to eliminate this disease is not yet over.
Sheila M. Rothman, Living in the Shadow of Death; Tuberculosis and the Social Experience of Illness in American History. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994
Albuquerque Civic Council, Putting 4-Wheel Brakes on Tuberculosis, 1925