The White Plague

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From the day Dr. Trudeau recovered his health, Saranac attracted a long procession of famous people. Robert Louis Stevenson spent the winter of 1887 here in a rambling cottage atop a hill, believing himself tubercular, though there is doubt about this now. In a letter to Henry James he wrote: “You should see the cows butt against the walls in the early morning while they feed; you should also see our back log when the thermometer goes (as it does go) away away below zero till it can be seen no more by the eye of man. Not the thermometer, which is still perfectly visible, but the mercury, which curls up into the bulb like a hibernating bear.”

Celebrities who had tuberculosis continued to come over the years to live in the brown-shingled houses on Park Avenue or in the many private health sanitariums—Harry Houdini’s brother, Legs Diamond’s brother. Mrs. Francis Trudeau, daughter-in-law of the founder of Trudeau, says she played bridge regularly in 1914 with Dutch Queen Wilhelmina, the head of the Bank of France, whose name escapes her, and a curator from Buckingham Palace.

Many came and stayed awhile, and went back where they came from too soon. TB sufferers were particularly prone to remission and recurrence. My mother did not really get well. At some time when I was away at school, she underwent the operation common at the time for lung collapse. Air is induced into the thoracic cavity to collapse the lung, sometimes permanently, with the removal of several ribs occasionally included. The theory was that a lung not working was a lung with time to heal. One could tell at a glance in the streets of Saranac which patients had submitted to surgery by the dropped shoulder and the slight chest concavity. One doctor invented an overshoulder bag of shot worn inside the clothing to combat the lopsided appearance of his postoperative patients.

My mother did not improve with the operation. She lived on for a while, swallowing in vain the cream soups and Hollandaise sauce that Dr. Brown hoped would increase her weight. In 1937, a telephone call brought me to her deathbed, little more than six years before the discovery of the drugs that would have saved her.

“I couldn’t help her,” said my heartbroken father, taking my hand in his. I told him he had managed to extend her life for seventeen years.

It comforted him then. I wonder now whether what he did for her made any difference at all.