The lungers’ legacy Chas­ing the Cure in New Mex­ico: Tu­ber­cu­lo­sis and the Quest for Health by Nancy Owen Lewis


Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Jen­nifer Levin

Pul­monary tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, a lung dis­ease com­monly re­ferred to as TB, was the lead­ing cause of death in the United States dur­ing the lat­ter half of the 19th cen­tury and the turn of the 20th. For decades, doc­tors be­lieved it was a hered­i­tary con­di­tion, a sort of pre­dis­po­si­tion to poor health. Treat­ment re­lied on the “heroic cure,” which meant send­ing sick peo­ple to toughen up in the fresh air, to work on ranches and live in tents. It was thought that high, dry, sunny cli­mates were best for this, with New Mex­ico be­ing the ideal, though the man­ual la­bor in­her­ent to the heroic cure was later found to be quite deadly, es­pe­cially for those in the later stages of the dis­ease. Cli­mate was the chief sell­ing point for New Mex­ico, as lo­cal politi­cians, business lead­ers, and other of­fi­cials en­gaged in a long, frus­trat­ing bid for state­hood. Sci­en­tists dis­cov­ered in 1882 that tu­ber­cu­lo­sis was caused by communicable in­fec­tious bac­te­ria, but since there was still no cure, doc­tors con­tin­ued to rec­om­mend time in a salu­bri­ous cli­mate as the best chance for sur­vival. Treat­ment moved from hard la­bor to rest, along with rec­om­men­da­tions of a diet rich in fats and pro­teins, and abun­dant fresh air and sun­shine. TB suf­fer­ers — of­ten called “lungers” — flocked here by the thou­sands, un­til a strep­to­mycin was made avail­able in 1949 that fi­nally con­trolled the spread of the dis­ease. Many pa­tients re­mained in New Mex­ico af­ter they re­cov­ered. They raised their fam­i­lies here and made last­ing im­pacts on the state’s cul­ture, econ­omy, and his­tory.

Nancy Owen Lewis, scholar- in- res­i­dence and for­mer di­rec­tor of scholar pro­grams at the School for Ad­vanced Re­search, has writ­ten the first book-length, schol­arly ac­count of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis treat­ment and the sana­to­rium in­dus­try in New Mex­ico, Chas­ing the Cure in New Mex­ico: Tu­ber­cu­lo­sis and the Quest for Health, pub­lished by Mu­seum of New Mex­ico Press. She reads from and signs copies of the book at Col­lected Works Book­store on Tues­day,Tues­day May 10.10

Lewis be­came in­ter­ested in tu­ber­cu­lo­sis treat­ment in New Mex­ico while re­search­ing in­for­ma­tion for

A Strange Alchemy, the cen­ten­nial his­tory of SAR. She re­al­ized that SAR’s first di­rec­tor, Edgar Lee Hewett, landed in New Mex­ico be­cause his wife, Cora, had TB, and they reg­u­larly trav­eled from Colorado to spend time in Santa Fe. Hewett was the found­ing di­rec­tor of New Mex­ico Nor­mal School in Las Ve­gas, which is now New Mex­ico High­lands Univer­sity. Af­ter his wife’s death, he be­came the found­ing di­rec­tor of SAR, then called the School of Amer­i­can Ar­chae­ol­ogy. “He st arts hir­ing st aff i n 1909,” Lewis told

Pasatiempo. “He hires the artist Car­los Vierra, who came out here as a health-seeker in 1904. Then he hires Ken­neth Chap­man, an­other health-seeker who had al­ready been work­ing for He­witt at New Mex­ico Nor­mal Univer­sity. John Gaw Meem, who was chair of our board, came out here be­cause he had TB.” Meem was the ar­chi­tect par­tially re­spon­si­ble for re­fin­ing and pop­u­lar­iz­ing Pue­blo Re­vival ar­chi­tec­ture in Santa Fe, a build­ing style orig­i­nally es­tab­lished as an­other way to sell the city as a des­ti­na­tion for health seek­ers and tourists by try­ing to at­tract them with the city’s dis­tinc­tive his­tory and charm.

The list of prom­i­nent fig­ures in the his­tory of SAR and Santa Fe who orig­i­nally came here to re­cover from TB goes on and on. Her in­ter­est piqued, Lewis looked for a book to read, but all she found were a few chap­ters and jour­nal ar­ti­cles. “There re­ally wasn’t a big pic­ture on this topic. So I ap­plied for a grant from the Of­fice of the New Mex­ico State His­to­rian to do 80 hours of re­search in the state ar­chives.” She went look­ing for diaries and jour­nals. In­stead she found of­fi­cial records about the for­ma­tion and ac­tions of the New Mex­ico Bureau of Im­mi­gra­tion, formed in 1880 to pro­mote New Mex­ico state­hood. It was t his t hird cat­e­gory in which of­fi­cials put their hopes.

“What I gath­ered from read­ing this lit­er­a­ture is that the Bureau of Im­mi­gra­tion didn’t re­ally care if these peo­ple had TB, as long as they were An­glo. They needed them to come out here and change the de­mo­graphic,” Lewis said. Though it was never put ex­pressly that way in the lit­er­a­ture, she con­sid­ers the im­pli­ca­tion that New Mex­ico had trou­ble achiev­ing state­hood be­cause the ter­ri­tory lacked a suf­fi­cient pop­u­la­tion of white peo­ple to be pretty clear.

In ad­di­tion to claims about the cu­ra­tive cli­mate, the bureau’s mar­ket­ing ma­te­rial made the as­ton­ish­ing as­ser­tion that New Mex­ico was such a health­ful place to be that Na­tive Amer­i­cans and His­panic New Mex­i­cans could not con­tract tu­ber­cu­lo­sis. Even af­ter the TB bacil­lus was dis­cov­ered, many doc­tors and sci­en­tists be­lieved that it could not sur­vive at more than 5,000 feet above sea level. Lewis im­me­di­ately started look­ing for ev­i­dence of im­mu­nity to TB among the lo­cal pop­u­lace and found noth­ing of the sort. As pa­tients ar­rived and lived in room­ing houses, tent cities, sana­to­ri­ums, and on the streets, hop­ing the moun­tain air would cure them, lo­cals be­came in­fected. Even­tu­ally there was such a high in­ci­dence of TB among Na­tive Amer­i­can chil­dren, due to in­fec­tion at board­ing schools, that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment es­tab­lished four sana­to­rium schools, wherein chil­dren could be iso­lated and treated while they con­tin­ued their ed­u­ca­tion.

Two classes of TB suf­fer­ers emerged: those who could pay for pri­vate treat­ment and those who could not. New Mex­ico seemed to be able to treat pa­tients from else­where but lacked the in­fras­truc­ture to care for its own — a di­rect re­sult of not hav­ing been granted state­hood, which would have come with cer­tain ad­van­tages, in­clud­ing fed­eral fund­ing for a pub­lic sana­to­rium. (State­hood was fi­nally granted in 1912; the first pub­lic sana­to­rium didn’t open in New Mex­ico un­til the 1930s, a full gen­er­a­tion later.) The ques­tion per­sisted for Lewis about why TB pa­tients, es­pe­cially artists and physi­cians, who came to New Mex­ico to heal, ul­ti­mately de­cided to stay. At the time, it was thought that the cli­mate in which you re­gained your health was the one that would keep you well, but the last­ing ex­pla­na­tion might be as sim­ple as it’s al­ways been. Some peo­ple come to Santa Fe and can’t han­dle the al­ti­tude and the dry brown land. Oth­ers see it as beau­ti­ful and cap­ti­vat­ing, and can’t imag­ine ever leav­ing.

Un­for­tu­nately, as t i me went on — and more out- of- state health seek­ers ar­rived and the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion got sicker — the ex­pense of care af­fected not only pa­tients but sana­to­ri­ums. There sim­ply weren’t enough beds avail­able, and there was no money to up­date di­lap­i­dated fa­cil­i­ties. Things got dire dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion, and sud­denly tran­sient lungers were en­cour­aged to stay away. Even wealthy TB pa­tients were no longer wel­come at places pur­port­ing to be health spas and ho­tels. Rhetoric around the in­nate good health of the lo­cals changed. No longer were Na­tive Amer­i­cans and His­pan­ics im­mune to TB; now the high rate of ill­ness among these pop­u­la­tions was at­trib­uted by doc­tors to liv­ing con­di­tions and cul­tural mis­un­der­stand­ings of dis­ease trans­mis­sion.

“It be­came put on them [Na­tive Amer­i­cans and His­pan­ics],” Lewis said. Back East, she noted, im­mi­grants were filling up the cities and TB was a prob­lem in ten­e­ments. Or­ga­ni­za­tions were formed to deal with the prob­lem by send­ing the sick im­mi­grants out west. “Peo­ple with no hope came here. We were only too glad to get the lungers, es­pe­cially if they were wealthy, but they made oth­ers sick. Yet, the in­di­gent health­seek­ers were des­per­ate. They were told com­ing to New Mex­ico would cure them of this deadly dis­ease.”

Pa­tients pose on the front stoop of the Al­bu­querque Sana­to­rium; left, a cer­tifi­cate was is­sued to mem­bers of the Lungers Club, a group or­ga­nized by health seek­ers stay­ing at the Adobe Hotel in Las Ve­gas

From left to right, tent houses, de­scribed as “nearly per­fect con­sump­tive dwellings,” en­abled Fort Stan­ton Sana­to­rium pa­tients to get fresh air year round; St. Vin­cent Sana­to­rium, which opened in 1910, was Santa Fe’s largest sana­to­rium, now the site of the Drury Plaza Inn; this TB cot­tage, built by Dr. Ed­ward Trudeau at Saranac Lake, New York, be­came the pro­to­type for New Mex­ico’s cot­tage sana­to­rium in­dus­try

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