The White Plague

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Years after my mother’s death, in the Adirondack Room of the Saranac Lake Library I found a copy of Dr. Brown’s Rules for Recovery From Pulmonary TB , a layman’s handbook of treatment. It was published about the time my mother wearied of the sanitarium and came home to live, and in this book, when it was too late to matter, I found the key to some of the things that troubled me about my mother.

The nervous system is damaged by TB, wrote Dr. Brown; and I am transported back across the years to our dinner table where my mother sat, her cheeks flushed with the fever, toying with her food and drumming her slim fingers on the mahogany of the table. From my seat beside her, I heard the cutting edge in her voice as she spoke to my father. But he never answered back. Was he told that he must expect my witty and beautiful mother to be irritable?

They are all gone now who could have told me, but I think my mother improved for a time and then relapsed, a very common story for TB in those days. After she had been home a few weeks, I was sent away to school, and in summer to camp. When I came home for a brief visit, the nurse had disappeared. Letters from my parents came postmarked Nassau and other palm-lined cruise ports of call. Mother must have lived a reasonably normal life for a time, conserving her energy for the things that mattered to her, drinking her milk and taking her rest, checking her temperature twice a day. She measured her life out in judicious pieces, choosing carefully, snipping a few spent roses in the garden, being driven on a morning round of errands behind the chauffeur. A cautious life, keeping out of the sun and always observing Dr. Brown’s dictum, “Never stand when you can sit. Never sit when you can lie.”

In the old photograph album I look for pictures of her as a girl, and she is, surprisingly to me, well rounded with curves and smiling radiantly. I do not connect this plump, pretty woman in the sailor suit and Gibson girl hat with the thin, nervous mother of my childhood.

Little by little I put together the pieces of the puzzle, the fragments from people who knew her at the time, the things my father told me later. She had a persistent cough, a cold which hung on. She was always dieting. She sat in hot baths and drank lemon juice. The local doctor pronounced the cough of no importance, but as she stood beside her bed one day the blood welled up in her throat. My father was a successful lumber merchant. He took her to Saranac, installed her in the Santanoni, the fashionable apartment hotel named after the nearby mountain range, and went home to a half life to raise us children alone.

What was her life like during those seven years she spent in Saranac, when Edward Livingston Trudeau was living and the frigid village was an international mecca for people seeking pulmonary cures? What was it like to be young and recently married and be sent to take the cure when coffins were rolling out every night, under cover of darkness.

Saranac is just another Adirondack village today, but there are some who still remember when passing motorists held handkerchiefs to their noses and exceeded the speed law to minimize exposure to the disease. So many TB patients thronged into the town that from two to four in the afternoon, the official rest period, the sound of a dropped tire jack would re-echo from one end of the town to another. Spitting on the street carried a twenty-five-dollar fine, a penalty rigorously enforced.

My mother went to Saranac in the twenties, when its reputation, because of Dr. Trudeau, was at its zenith. Until the summer of 1875, when Trudeau discovered he had TB and came to die in the woods he had always loved, Saranac was a village of a single schoolhouse, a sawmill, and a small hotel for guides and lumbermen. The clerk at the only store doubled as the telegraph operator.

Trudeau, on his arrival, was so wasted with fever that the man who carried him to his room remarked, “Why, doctor, you don’t weigh no more than a dried lambskin.” But the next day they fixed him a bed of balsam boughs in a guideboat, laid his gun across the center seat, and loaded him in to go hunting. Miraculously, slowly, his health improved and he gained weight. Returning to his practice, he attributed his recovery to the pure, cold mountain air and stayed on to found a sanitarium for other TB sufferers.

Word of the effects of the climate spread through medical circles, and many of Trudeau’s New York colleagues joined him. In 1889, Little Red, the tiny nucleus of Trudeau Sanitarium for the Treatment of Pulmonary Disease, was dedicated, the culmination of a dream which had been shaping in Trudeau’s mind since he first knew he would not, after all, die at Saranac.

Today it is almost impossible for us to understand what it meant in Trudeau’s day—and indeed on into the mid-forties—to be diagnosed as tubercular. Tuberculosis was a death knell, the end of a normal life and the beginning of months or years of enforced idleness, banishment, and hopelessness. TB meant a sanitarium and one might as well be exiled from life itself.