I came to the art gallery on our trip searching for waterfalls to look at art from the Depression, but to my surprise, I found myself thinking about economics and the future of the country. Also to my surprise, I found myself thinking about a disease that ravaged the world throughout most of our history.
The art gallery displaying WPA paintings in Mt. Morris, New York, was in a building that had once been part of a tuberculosis sanitarium. That disease, in earlier times called consumption, was a common disease throughout most of history. In the nineteenth and twentieth century it was often associated with artists. John Keats died from it when he was twenty-five. Franz Kafka died from TB when he was forty. The deaths of Amedeo Modigliani and Aubrey Beardsley were caused or hastened by tuberculosis. The disease, however, was not limited to the creative but widespread in all classes of society. And it was a killer; two-thirds who got the active form died from it. One in every four or five deaths in England and France in 1900 were from TB.
Until the late nineteenth century, it was believed that TB was hereditary. Something in the biological makeup of a person produced the disease. However, in 1882 the German doctor and microbiologist Robert Koch discovered it was caused by a bacillus and that it was contagious. This led to movements to limit the contagion in various ways such as posters warnin against the kissing of infants and laws against spitting. (When I moved to New York, the subways still had signs stating that spitting was prohibited. I did not notice when they came down.)
The sanitarium movement also began. It was believed that TB sufferers would best recover if they were removed from the general population to a place with healthy air, nutritious food, and the opportunity for exercise, which generally meant walking. Hundreds of sanitariums, often on mountains, hills, or in a desert, were established. Stays often lasted many years, and perhaps each facility developed its own society and culture akin to the one created in the maddening and marvelous novel Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.
Still the hardships of the sanitariums were real. Families may have been allowed to visit, but for the most part the inmates were cut off most of the time from friends and relatives, and their access to constructive and meaningful activity was limited. Not surprisingly, even though the amount of money spent on them was enormous, the quality of the facilities varied, and they probably did little good. As with many medical treatments over the ages, no evidence shows that sanitarium stays were efficacious in the treatment of TB. A lot of money was spent and a lot of lives were disrupted with nothing to show for it. Instead, tuberculosis only waned in this country when antibiotics found in the 1940s were shown to attack the bacillus. The later discovery of a vaccine further controlled the disease. By 1971, when the Mt. Morris sanitarium closed, most such TB facilities were shutting down.
Some of the institutions have been torn down. Some are just decaying hulks. Many like the one in Mt. Morris have been repurposed. Indeed, the building and grounds that once held hundreds of patients and medical personnel now makes a lovely campus for county offices.
I have heard that many of the old sanitariums are haunted. I did not gain any firsthand knowledge of ghosts in Mt. Morris. But we were still expecting more firsthand knowledge of waterfalls as our trip continued. . . .