Eighty years ago, in 1942, a graduate student named Rollo May was diagnosed with Tuberculosis, the early twentieth century’s version of COVID-19. He later joined the thousands of people who retreated to the Adirondacks to help save them from the disease, which what was then known as “the captain of death.” At the time of his diagnosis, May was a former pastor who had recently enrolled in a psychology program at Columbia University Teachers College in New York. Tuberculosis had threatened to cut short this life that showed so much promise and later heralded the American existential psychology movement.
Historic Saranac Lake (HSL) is launching a new project, titled: “Pandemic Past and Present.” This project will take place on their Cure Porch on Wheels, and is funded by the 2021 Corridor of Commerce Interpretive Theme Grant from the Champlain Valley National Hertiage Partnership.
HSL will be hosting programs from its mobile museum (the Cure Porch on Wheels) in order to explore local history in public health with new and larger audiences. Visitors to the mobile museum will be able to watch videos and take part in activities centered around Saranac Lake’s health resort history.
Mahala Nyberg, HSL’s new Public Programs Coordinator and leader of the project had the following to say: “As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, Saranac Lake’s sanatorium history is newly relevant. Our history as a community built on the treatment and research of a highly infectious disease helps to shed light on issues in public health today. The experience of the COVID-19 pandemic inspires us to explore untold stories in our local history and make new connections to broader themes.”
The mobile museum will be operating within 640 square miles of the Saranac Lake School District, and the Lake Champlain Basin Program grant will support the creation of short videos exploring the history of Saranac Lake’s TB history. This project is a natural outgrowth of a new exhibit soon to be unveiled at the Saranac Laboratory Museum titled, “Pandemic Perspectives.” Following its closure through the winter due to the pandemic, the museum reopened May 25, 2021.
Sing on, sing on you gray-brown bird, Sing from the swamps, the recesses, pour your chant from the bushes, Limitless out of the dusk, out of the cedars and pines. Walt Whitman, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”
A whole year has gone by since we first heard the word “Covid.” We are coming full circle, and soon the hermit thrush will sing again.
Following Black History Month, we have been thinking about something we’re often asked about at the Saranac Laboratory Museum – were there Black TB patients in Saranac Lake, and where did they stay? We know that as long as people came to Saranac Lake and the Adirondacks for their health, Black patients were among them. One early health-seeker was Henry Ossawa Tanner, who was one of the first Black artists to be internationally famous. He first came to Rainbow Lake for his health in 1878, five years after Dr. Trudeau.
Due to accidental loss or intentional destruction of records from the sanatoria, cure cottages, and public agencies following the closure of the TB industry, there is a lot that we don’t know. We have large gaps in our knowledge about the names, hometowns, race, and more of patients coming to Saranac Lake and where they stayed. This is true for patients of all races. But it is also true that Black patients were excluded from certain sanatoria and cure cottages, and did not have access to the same resources that white patients did.
Historic Saranac Lake’s Saranac Laboratory museum is re-open, operating under limited hours and strict guidelines in order to keep their patrons and their staff healthy. The museum is the first laboratory in the nation that was built for the study of tuberculosis, showcasing Saranac Lakes history as a community that built a bustling economy around the response to an infectious disease.
Museum staff expects that visitors will find Saranac Lakes history relevant once again in response to COVID-19. The museum is currently open on Thursdays through Saturdays from 10am or 5pm, and visitors are encouraged to check out historicsaranaclake.org for updates.
Historic Saranac Lake (HSL) will hold its 36th Annual Meeting on Wednesday, November 9, 2016 at 7 pm at the Saranac Laboratory Museum. The meeting will feature a presentation by filmmaker Jim Griebsch of a newly updated version of “Hotel Hope: the Story of Will Rogers Hospital.”
The evening will also feature the unveiling of an artifact donated to HSL by the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation. The meeting is open to members of Historic Saranac Lake and those who are interested in becoming members. Light refreshments will be served.
Historic Saranac Lake contracted with Jim Griebsch to produce the historical film in 2015. Special historian for Will Rogers Memorial Hospital Leslie Hoffman provided research assistance. Caroline Welsh, Director Emerita of the Adirondack Museum, and Art and Museum Consultant, assisted with research and writing. Originally planned to be a short film of under fifteen minutes, the project grew to feature original film footage and contemporary interviews with former patients and employees of the hospital. In 2016, the film was updated with additional footage. » Continue Reading.
“Hotel Hope”, a new film about the history of Will Rogers Memorial Hospital in Saranac Lake, where tuberculosis victims from the entertainment industry came for treatment, will premiere on Saturday at Saranac Village at Will Rogers.
Historic Saranac Lake contracted with Jim Griebsch to produce the documentary. Will Rogers Memorial Hospital historian Leslie Hoffman and Caroline Welsh, Director Emerita of the Adirondack Museum, both provided research assistance. The film features archival footage and contemporary interviews with former patients and employees of the hospital. » Continue Reading.
On September 29, Historic Saranac Lake was presented an Adirondack Architectural Heritage Award at a luncheon at the Woods Inn in Inlet. The award was granted for the restoration of the Saranac Lake Laboratory as a museum, community space, and organization offices.
“It is a real honor,” Executive Director Amy Catania said in a statement to the press. “Many community members have put in a lot of hard work on the restoration of this special building. Thanks to everyone’s hard work, we are now open as Saranac Lake’s downtown history center, serving thousands of visitors every year from near and far.” » Continue Reading.
In the summer of 1892, the wife of President Benjamin Harrison, Caroline Scott Harrison, became extremely ill. She primarily suffered from tuberculosis, but experienced complications from pleurisy and the accumulation of fluid in her chest. Medical treatment of T. B. at the time mainly amounted to having the patient rest. For this reason, it was felt that a stay in the Adirondacks offered the best chance for restoring the First Lady’s health.
Early in July, the journey from Washington, D.C. to Loon Lake was undertaken, via a special train. The Troy Daily Times dutifully reported on the train’s progress. It arrived in Troy in the wee hours of the morning on July 7, then proceeded to White Creek, Rutland, Vermont, Rouse’s Point, and Malone, reaching the latter place at 10:30 am. There, a crowd that included some local officials met the two-car train, but the President asked that they refrain from cheering, so as not to disturb his sick wife. » Continue Reading.
His work with children’s hospitals convinced Colonel Walter Scott that there might be help for Jessica despite her negative prognosis and seemingly hopeless situation. New and exciting progress had been made, especially by Dr. Russell Hibbs of New York City, whose surgical innovations helped change the face of medicine. Hibbs was the first to perform a spinal fusion, and made great advances in treating tuberculosis of the spine and hip.
At the request of Ferguson’s physicians, Hibbs conducted an evaluation and surprised everyone with his conclusion. Jessica, he said, would benefit from a spinal operation, and might well walk normally following therapy. After all she had been through, the hopeful news was stunning.
Colonel Scott and others encouraged her with best wishes, and in early September 1926, Hibbs performed the operation in New York City. Doctors had worried that Jessica’s weakened physical state might place her in critical condition after surgery. Instead, improvement was seen immediately, and with her usual upbeat outlook, Ferguson went right to work on recovery. » Continue Reading.
Mirror Girl. What an intriguing term. In the past, it has been applied to the prettiest coeds in sororities, cute girls in general, and particularly vain women. But in this case, it addresses one of my favorite historical stories linked to the North Country’s years as a tuberculosis treatment center. The patient was a young woman, Jessica “Jessie” Ferguson, born in 1895 in Mount Pleasant, New York, north of Tarrytown on the Hudson River. Her parents, James and Anna, were both natives of Scotland, a fact that becomes key to the story.
The young girl’s difficulties began in her early twenties when her father died, and Jessica was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the bone, affecting her spine. In 1918, she lost the ability to walk. Doctors placed her in a cast that forced Jessica into a permanent reclining position.
In the early 1920s, Anna Ferguson moved her daughter to Saranac Lake, where they settled into a cottage on Riverside Drive on the shores of Lake Flower. Jessica’s situation was different from most patients, for the majority suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis, which affected the lungs. The vision most of us conjure is of patients on porches to benefit from the fresh air, something Jessica was unable to do. » Continue Reading.
The restored Trudeau Laboratory, at 89 Church Street in Saranac Lake, will open its first museum exhibit Saturday, May 23, “The Great War: World War I in Saranac Lake.”
“The lab” houses the office of Historic Saranac Lake, which curates the new exhibit and has been renovating the 1894 structure for more than a decade. This summer the group will also open to the public the actual laboratory of Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau, who did early research into tuberculosis there.
Following are details about the WWI exhibit from Historic Saranac Lake’s press release:
World War I, also known as The Great War, left an indelible mark on the people of Saranac Lake, especially those who served or helped out on the homefront. Many servicemen came home injured or shell shocked, having endured horrific conditions in the trenches. Some of Saranac Lake’s citizens were among the 15 million men who lost their lives in the war.
Servicemen who had contracted tuberculosis came to Saranac Lake for the fresh air cure. One of those men was original hall-of-fame pitcher Christy Matthewson. Another was John Baxter Black, for whom the addition to the Saranac Laboratory was named in 1928.
Historic Saranac Lake worked with designer Karen Davidson of Lake Placid to create panels that tell the story of how World War I impacted Saranac Lake. A number of panels were acquired thanks to the generosity of Elizabeth McAuliffe and the Windsor Connecticut Historical Society.
Several of the bookcases in the John Black Room will display uniforms and other artifacts loaned for the exhibit from families of local soldiers Ralph Coleman, Dorchester Everett, Elwood Ober, Percy Bristol and Olin Ten Eyck.
Historic Saranac Lake invites families of veterans to share their stories, letters, photographs, or artifacts Saturday. The exhibit will be open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, and from 2 to 4 p.m. on Memorial Day. It will remain open to the public through the summer months. Historic Saranac Lake requests a $5 donation to help defray costs for the exhibit.
The “Great War” Exhibit is a lead-in to the opening of Saranac Laboratory Museum this summer. On July 18, the new exhibit “125 Years of Science” will open in cooperation with the Adirondack Museum and Trudeau Institute.
For more information contact Amy Catania, program manager, (518) 891-4606, email@example.com
Photo: WWI officer John Baxter Black, courtesy of his family.
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