The White Plague

In the mid to late 1800s, Rhode Island was known as the “Vampire Capital of America.” Even when germs were recognized, in New England in particular, when members of a family died from a mysterious illness, the idea circulated that vampires were at work. It was conjectured that the victims were preyed on by the “undead” who were suspected of literally sucking the blood and life out of them as the they wasted away. As horrific as it sounds today, bodies would be exhumed and rituals  performed to prevent further deprivation.

In that same time frame, one in seven people in the United States died from the dreaded malady, tuberculosis, or TB. Also known as consumption or the white plague, it is one of the oldest diseases known to mankind, and was very misunderstood.

Before the COVID pandemic, a day trip took us to Saranac Lake, high in the Adirondacks. Our destination was twofold: to go on a guided tour of an old hospital and to visit a museum. Both venues gave a fascinating glimpse into the medical history of a disease which took many lives, particularly in the  19th and 20th centuries.

The Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium was established in 1885 by Dr. Edward Trudeau. It was the first place to successfully treat TB patients using a cure consisting of good nutrition, rest, and cold mountain air. Trudeau himself had been diagnosed with TB and had been sent to the mountains of New York to recover. In 1876 he moved to the area and set up a practice. He was convinced that the fresh air had, in fact, cured him.

The tour was sponsored by Historic Saranac Lake and did not disappoint. We observed some of the 35 remaining structures while our guide narrated and answered questions. The site sits high on a hill and offered a sweeping view of the distant mountains and countryside.

The rod-shaped TB bacterium causes fatigue, fever, cough (often bloody,) night sweats, weight loss, and lung pain. It can kill quickly (galloping consumption) but most often presents itself as a chronic disease spread by an aerosol of droplets from coughing. The most vulnerable were the poor who lived in overcrowded conditions and were often malnourished or had underlying conditions, but no class of people were immune.

In the hospital, patients’ temperatures were taken several times a day. Strict bed rest was advised for those with elevated temperatures. Patients were frequently weighed, and X-rays were taken. When temperatures leveled off, exercise was gradually added to the schedule. Patients were encouraged to drink a lot of milk, a good source of protein. Beds were wheeled to sleeping porches where patients would stay, bundled up with fur coats and electric blankets in the most frigid weather.

At its peak, 400 patients could be treated at th sanitarium, with overflow patients staying in private family homes with porches to accommodate them. The hospital offered hope that people could again enjoy normal lives. A cure could take upwards of two years but the mortality rate was high; 50% of those infected often died within five years. The most critically ill patients had surgery which involved collapsing lungs to give them a chance to rest and heal.

The hospital closed in 1954 after the advent of an antibiotic called streptomycin.

The museum’s laboratory highlighted the work of Dr. Trudeau with displays and photos. White glazed tile made the rooms easy to clean. Medical equipment was displayed with photos of the curing porches and treatment regimens. We could look at an actual slide of the bacterium.

My great-grandfather died of TB in 1909. He had gone from Delaware County south for treatment which was unsuccessful. His remains were brought by train to the Methodist Church in East Branch for the funeral. From his obituary:

“G. W. Pine, a former resident of East Branch, died at his home in Scranton Tuesday evening of last week of tuberculosis. Surviving are his wife, one daughter and two sons; also a brother, Archibald D. Pine, of Monticello. His remains were taken to East Branch for interment.”

That same year, 1909, the New York legislature required TB hospitals to be constructed throughout New York to deal with rising cases. The Saratoga County Homestead Tuberculosis Hospital is open for a guided tour. We visited that site and took many photographs. Some restoration is planned, but basically the imposing structure is in ruins inside.

In our cemetery work, we sometimes see on gravestones, “died of a lingering illness” or “died from consumption,” or a fragment of an epitaph – “like a snow wreath, slow she wasted…” Many stones, of course, do not reveal a cause of death, but those that do offer yet another clue to that person’s life and ultimate end.

TB has not been eradicated. As of 2020, 1.5 million people died globally from the disease, as reported by the World Health Organization. So, while our dealings with COVID have been an ordeal, generations ago people in the area grappled with another feared disease.

October 15, 2023