- Historic Sites
The White Plague
A young girl’s memories of life in a community haunted by
February/March 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 2
The mothers of my childhood friends paid special attention to me, and I never understood why. I was dimly aware that something about me made them pat my shoulder and murmur sympathetically or, on the other hand, quite as inscrutably, bar me from their homes and keep their children from visiting me. Grown-up behavior was difficult to fathom, and I did not question it.
I never connected it with the fact that my mother suffered from tuberculosis.
It was not until I was grown and my mother was gone that I came to understand the dread the very word “tuberculosis” engendered in people’s minds in the late nineteen twenties and early thirties. I came myself to fear it, the natural result of years of anxious looks and repeated warnings to wash my hands, stand back, avoid infection. “Do you think I have it yet?” I once asked my older brother, who replied coldly, “I don’t know. It’s like water wearing away a stone.”
As late as 1875 tuberculosis was still the leading killer in America, and even when I was a child about eighty-six people per hundred thousand were still dying of the disease. Worse, nobody really knew how it was contracted or how it could be cured. The TB patient— and sometimes the patient’s family—was shunned in much the same way that a leprosy victim would have been shunned. Oddly, the bacilli of the two diseases look remarkably alike.
But as a child in the upstate New York town of Rome, I knew nothing of all this. Be it ever so odd, a child’s particular world is to him the norm, and I saw nothing I remarkable about ours. The Russells next door went to church on special days. Down at the corner, they f couldn’t come out to play till the dishes were washed. Different houses, different rules.
I took the way of life in our house for granted. My mother had suffered a lung hemorrhage when I was very small and had gone away to live in a sanitarium at Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks. She came home about 1930, almost a stranger to me, improved but far from cured, and our household rearranged itself around her.
My father built a special wing on the house for my mother’s homecoming—a big separate bedroom and bath and a sleeping porch. My older brother, who had had a spot on his lung that had been pronounced arrested, slept as a precautionary measure on a second sleeping porch, often with an inch or two of upstate New York snow on top of his blankets. A trained nurse came to live with us, and Nettie, the Irish second maid, was instructed to keep my mother’s silver separate, to tie a string around each piece, and to wash them in a separate dishpan. I was severely enjoined never to put a morsel of food in my mouth without surgically scrubbing my hands first.
My mother was allowed to come downstairs only once a day. I was brought to visit her in her room or on her porch as she lay in her cure chair, a specially built combination couch and chair which was supposed to encourage the correct position for maximum healing. She spent her days lying in it, reading omnivorously. She seemed to me very beautiful and was very thin, somewhere around 95 pounds. I was told to keep as far away as possible.
Evenings she presided over the dinner table, wearing elegant gowns and smoking cigarettes through a long cigarette holder like the women in the pictures of John Held, Jr. I remember people coming in to play cards, the rattle of ice in the cocktail shaker, laughter. I was put to bed early, but sometimes I saw her being carried upstairs after it was over.
Afternoons she and I rested for two hours. Rest was considered the shield against TB, and I was incarcerated daily from two to four in my room while the neighbor children stood beneath my window inquiring how much longer I would have to lie in bed and elaborately shushing each other. A great deal of faith was also placed in milk. Huge quantities were urged on us children, and a glass was forever on the way upstairs to Mother’s room.
My mother’s new wing angled out from my bedroom and I could hear her coughing in the morning, something she always did in private. It was a deep, terrifying cough, and I found it hard to think of it coming from my mother. Later, when I paid my morning call on her, I would see the cardboard box on the table beside her. She coughed into the box, not only so that a potential source of infection could be burned, but so that occasionally a sputum sample could be sent to her doctor in Saranac for analysis.
Mother’s doctor was Lawrason Brown, who from 1901 to 1912 had been head of the Trudeau Sanitarium in Saranac. Trudeau was world famous as a semicharitable cure hospital—a patient paid fifteen dollars a week in 1937—but it was staffed by famous New York doctors, most of whom had come to Saranac for their own health. When not working at Trudeau, they had enormously lucrative and fashionable private practices. Dr. Brown’s name was spoken in hushed tones in our house. Young as I was, I sensed the awe with which the nurse rolled his name on her tongue.