Today, the planet is taking a crash course on the limitations of modern medicine and the complications of human disease. It is a good time to look back and see what Saranac Lake’s history might teach us about public health.
From our place in the world of modern medicine and science, it can be easy to see healthcare in the past as quackery. Many visitors to the museum skeptically ask, “Was there anything to it? Was there any benefit to the Saranac Lake treatment?”
Saranac Lake’s tuberculosis economy depended on the labor of many essential workers. In honor of today’s heroes, here are a few favorite stories of brave helpers in local history.
Nurses and doctors risked their own health providing care and companionship to tuberculosis patients far from home. Our museum archive is full of hundreds of photos and stories of these courageous women and men. In her book, Wish I Might, Isabel Smith writes warmly about her doctor, Francis B. Trudeau. He is somewhat overshadowed in history by his famous father, founder of Saranac Lake’s TB industry, Dr. E. L. Trudeau. But Francis was widely respected for his kindness and his fierce dedication to his patients. Ms. Smith described his “inimitable hearty roar of good spirits which, then and always, enveloped me like a blaze of sunlight.”
The old neighborhoods of Saranac Lake are lively these days, as people of all ages take a break from solitude to go out walking at all hours. Like the TB patients of the past, we are eager to stretch our legs, breathe some fresh air, and wave to a friendly face across the street.
Moderate exercise was a key part of the treatment in Saranac Lake. Doctors recognized that exercise could boost the immune system by strengthening the body and improving mental health. Not all TB patients were bedridden, and those who were well enough to get out of bed went walking on their doctors’ orders.
During the years Saranac Lake was a health resort, many TB patients filled their time by making arts and crafts. These activities furnished a crucial sense of purpose for people struggling with isolation and boredom.
Before antibiotics, there was no real cure for TB, so doctors and nurses helped patients fight the disease by supporting their immune systems in every possible way. They provided good nursing care, healthy food, rest, moderate exercise, and attention to mental health through occupational therapy. At the Trudeau Sanatorium Workshop, and later at the Study and Craft Guild in town, patients and community members learned jewelry making, basket weaving, painting, and much more.
This past spring, we opened an exhibit titled “The Art of the Cure,” presenting some of the beautiful arts and crafts that grew out of our local history. Thinking about the parallels with our present times, I ducked into the museum this week to pick out a story from the exhibit to share.
In an effort to fill up the silence of social distance, many of us are turning to the comfort of music. Some older Saranac Lakers can trace their love of music back to a kind lady who lived in a little brick house up on French Hill.
Pilar Gordon Benero was born in Cuba in the year 1900. Her father was a well respected physician from a prominent family in Havana. The last thing she must have imagined was that she would end up living out her life way up in the Adirondacks.
At the age of 25, Pilar came to Saranac Lake with her sister Isabel, who was suffering from tuberculosis. Here, she fell in love with Manolo Benero, a TB patient from Puerto Rico. Pilar and Manolo married, and unlike thousands of other Spanish speaking patients who came north for the cure, they settled in Saranac Lake. Manolo worked as the office manager at Troy Laundry and delivered for Meals on Wheels. They raised two boys, Manny and Joe, talented hockey players who graduated from Saranac Lake High School.
I’ve been thinking about ways that TB patients combatted loneliness. Spending much of their time alone, often far from family and friends, radio served as a source of entertainment and a lifeline to community. In 1927, a time when there were fewer than 100 radio stations in the United States, Saranac Lake founded its own local radio station, WNBZ. The people at WNBZ produced locally grown radio shows tailored to keep TB patients busy, like courses in literature and history and one called, “Let’s Learn Spanish.”
Many years ago, Saranac Lake rallied to fight a deadly disease. Today’s news sure has us thinking about our local history.
Tuberculosis killed 1 in 7 people in the late 1800s. Highly contagious and with no known cure, fear and stigma surrounded TB. Unlike the new virus we face today, many of its victims were young people in their 20s. Like today, quarantine was often seen as an appropriate solution, and sometimes people were isolated against their will. A person’s ethnicity, race, and socioeconomic status affected the kinds of treatments available.
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