The White Plague


_DSC2528by Robert Hanaford Smith, Sr.
Weirs Times Contributing Writer

Mountain air was the  choice for the location of the Sanatoriums; thus the selection of Glencliff on the side of a mountain.
Mountain air was the choice for the location of the Sanatoriums; thus the selection of Glencliff on the side of a mountain.

If you read the death notices that were in some of the old yearly Town Reports of New Hampshire you will find that the cause of death was given for those who died the previous year. Sometimes that cause was noted as “ Consumption.” That word did not mean that they ate too much. The problem was caused by what was eating them. Consumption was another name for tuberculosis, a disease caused by a bacteria labeled mycobacterium tuberculosis. Thought to have been around since ancient times and to have killed an estimated billion people world-wide during the past two centuries, tuberculosis was so prevalent in Europe and the United States that it was called The White Plague.
An official report of the town of New Hampton, NH tells us that on May 31 of the year 1910 Laura J. Smith, a housewife, died at the age of 40 years, 7 months, and 17 days. The cause of death is listed as pulmonary tuberculosis. Laura is my grandmother. Another New Hampton report lists the death of Robert T. Smith, whose occupation was identified as Editor, on January 16, 1928 at the age of 25 years and 28 days. The cause of death was not listed but was well-known to be consumption (or tuberculosis), a disease for which he and many others sought a cure. Robert is Laura’s (and Bradley’s) son and my uncle.
The bacteria that causes the disease abbreviated as TB was discovered in 1882 by Dr, Robert Koch and revealed that it was an infectious disease which led to efforts to keep those infected from spreading the illness to others. In the early 1900s there were an estimated 110,000 deaths a year in the United States from TB. During that period of history one in seven deaths in the U.S. and Europe was attributed to tuberculosis.
The state legislature of New Hampshire authorized the construction of a sanatorium in Glencliff in 1901 as a place to treat patients with TB. The establishment was completed and opened for patients in 1909. It was thought that fresh air and sunshine along with rest and isolation were helpful in combating the disease, but only those who were thought to have a favorable prospect of being cured were admitted. My uncle sought help at the Greenwood Mountain Sanatorium in Hebron, Maine. He attended Bates College and was employed by a Lewiston newspaper after his graduation from New Hampton Literary and Theological Institution. Mountain air was the choice for the location of the Sanatoriums; thus the selection of Glencliff on the side of a mountain at an elevation of 1,650 feet. A sanatorium for children was established at Pembroke in the early 1920’s as the Glencliff facility did not accept children. Some patients at Glencliff were there for years. In the 1930’s surgical procedures were used in an effort to cure patients, but it was not until 1944 that streptomycin was discovered and its use, along with other soon to be discovered medications, greatly increased recovery rates .
It should be noted that the sanatoriums placed patients in beds on porches open to the outside air where they slept during the winter as well as the summer. Many hours during the day were reserved for rest. One patient in the 1940’s described the routine as leading the life of a log.
I have been able to discover some of my Uncle Robert’s efforts to overcome the consumption that was afflicting his body, though I do not know when he was diagnosed with the disease or how long he was in the sanatorium. Relatives wrote letters of encouragement to him. On October 9, 1926 an aunt wrote him that she was “…so sorry to hear that you have had such a sick time. I hear you are doing better and in good hands. I hope you will continue to gain.” His brother Richard wrote on Dec. 18 of that year that he was glad to hear that Robert was gaining. Then on January 10, 1927 his father (my grandfather) wrote this to him, “I am glad to hear that the Doctor gives so good report in his exam of your case, hope you will have plenty of warm clothes to put on when you get out of bed ….I don’t see any reason on why you will not come out all right in time.”
By the summer of 1927 Uncle Robert was apparently out of the Western Maine Sanatorium and back in New Hampton and had requested that the sanatorium superintendent send him the x-rays films of his lungs. He was told that they were the property of the sanatorium and were valuable “…for study and for record” however the superintendent indicated that they had “ …sufficient interest in your welfare to sacrifice the films, if necessary.”
My uncle was apparently advised to seek treatment at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, Canada, but on his first try in July of 1927 was not allowed to cross the border into Canada because he had tuberculosis. After intervention by Dr. Smart of Laconia he was able to make the border crossing and to be admitted to the Canadian hospital where he went for the purpose of a surgical procedure. He was a patient there in November of 1927.
One person tried to arrange for Robert to travel to a facility in the western mountains for the more favorable climate and informed him that there were those who felt that TB patients were more apt to improve if they led a physically active life rather than following the usual prescription of rest and avoiding exertion. Nevertheless the young college student with a seemingly promising future, perhaps as a lawyer, joined many others in New Hampshire and around the nation in succumbing to the White Plague that still takes the life of perhaps a million and a half people each year in other areas of the world. In the year 1901 there were 194 deaths due to TB per each 100,000 people in New Hampshire. In the year 2015 there was approximately one case of TB per 100,000 people.

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