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.
These days it seems like everyone wants to call the Adirondacks home. During the pandemic, closed-in city spaces have lost their allure. It’s a repeat of Saranac Lake’s tuberculosis years, when tens of thousands of people came here from around the world in search of the fresh air cure. When you want to avoid germs, a place with more trees than people is a good bet. Mohawks picking berries in the Adirondacks. Illustration by John Fadden.
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.
Seeking some historical perspective on the current pandemic, Historic Saranac Lake recently hosted an imaginary panel discussion at St. John’s in the Wilderness Cemetery. Three generations of Doctors Trudeau shared their thoughts on change and continuity in science and public health.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
DOCTOR 1: Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau (1848-1915) Leader of the sanatorium movement in the U.S., founder of the Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium and the Saranac Laboratory. (Pictured, left, in the Saranac Laboratory. HSL Collection.)
DOCTOR 2: Dr. Francis Berger Trudeau (1887-1956) Saranac Lake physician and leader of the sanatorium after his father’s death. (Pictured, center. Courtesy of the Saranac Free Library)
DOCTOR 3: Dr. Frank B. Trudeau (1919-1995) Prominent local physician and founder of the Trudeau Institute. (Pictured, right, opening the doors of the Trudeau Institute for the first time. HSL Collection.)
During this quiet summer, one of the things we are missing is the theater. From Broadway in New York City to Pendragon in Saranac Lake, stages have gone dark. Actors are a lively, irrepressible bunch, and so it’s a testament to the seriousness of the situation that theaters are closed.
In interesting contrast, through the 1918 flu pandemic, Broadway did not shut down. A New York Times article this past July titled, “’Gotham Refuses to Get Scared’: In 1918, Theaters Stayed Open” described how, at the height of the flu epidemic, New York’s health commissioner declined to close performance spaces. Instead, he instituted public health measures such as staggering show times, eliminating standing room tickets, and mandating that anyone with a cough or sneeze be removed from theaters immediately.
Historic Saranac Lake will be hosting a reading of “Safe Harbor,” a play about Saranac Lake during the height of Tuberculosis. The play will be read starting at 5:30 p.m. this Thursday, Sept. 10, from a cure porch in the village to a small (socially distant) audience.
The play is about two residents of a small cure cottage in Saranac Lake, whose lives intersect due to tuberculosis. “Safe Harbor” illuminates the experiences of many who, after being made outcasts in their own homes, were able to reclaim their humanity from TB.
In a time when compassion and logic often seem in short supply, many of us have a newfound appreciation for doctors and scientists. Saranac Lake’s history is full of professionals in medicine and science who had a passion for learning and an intense curiosity about the natural world.
Our own Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau was a naturalist at heart. He learned an interest in the natural world from his father James, who accompanied his friend John J. Audubon on scientific expeditions. When Edward fell sick with TB, he credited the peace he found in the Adirondack forest for his ability to fight the disease.
Later, that same appreciation for nature inspired Trudeau to pursue the scientific study of tuberculosis. In 1882, Dr. Robert Koch announced his discovery of the tuberculosis bacterium. Trudeau learned of his study and rushed to replicate Koch’s work, despite never having used a microscope himself. Motivated by his desire to find a cure and his own curiosity, Trudeau demonstrated incredible persistence in the face of adversity. He began his work in a remote, freezing village with no running water, electricity, or train service. As he stated in his autobiography, “One of my great problems was to keep my guinea-pigs alive in winter.” Trudeau worked with improvised laboratory equipment, and even when his first home and home laboratory burned down, he didn’t give up.
First-hand accounts left behind in letters, photographs, diaries, and memoirs paint a picture of life in Saranac Lake during the TB years. It’s an incomplete record that can lead us to believe curing was an overwhelmingly positive experience.
It takes energy, time, and a degree of mental and physical well being to leave behind a personal record. People who were very ill, illiterate, or struggling with poverty did not have the same opportunity to create, or later preserve, accounts of their experiences.
One of my favorite stories in our local history is about a meteor shower over Mount Baker and a tuberculosis patient named Isabel Smith.
Ms. Smith spent 20 years of her life sick in bed at the Trudeau Sanatorium. She wrote a book about her experience titled Wish I Might. Her book touches upon so many aspects of the cure — the importance of routine, diet, friendships, “cousining,” the natural world, reading, and occupational therapy. So many threads of the story are there.
Most intriguing is Isabel’s description of how she changed as a person during her long illness. She endured disfiguring operations and the removal of ribs to deflate her lung. At times, her case seemed hopeless. As the reality of her sickness settled in, Isabel felt anger, sadness, loneliness, and fear. But one night, on her porch overlooking Mount Baker, she stayed up with her porch mate to watch the Leonid meteor shower. For hours, the young women watched the sky, feeling transported from their sick beds to connect with the vast universe. Suddenly, life was very much worth living.
In recent months, as the coronavirus jumped from bats to people and spread around the globe, the world suddenly seems much smaller. The situation reminds us of our connectedness to the animal world and to each other. Such an awareness of nature is deeply rooted in the Adirondack traditions of hunting and fishing.
The practice of hunting in the Adirondacks stretches back thousands of years. For countless generations, Native American peoples lived in balance with the natural environment, taking only resources needed for survival, and making use of medicinal plants.
From the mid-1800s, growing numbers of tourists came to the Adirondacks to experience the wilderness. They relied on Adirondack guides’ deep knowledge of the woods and waters to explore the wilderness in comfort and safety.
“Are you a Trotty Veck?” This was the question posed to readers of the first Trotty Veck Messages pamphlet, Good Cheer. These small booklets contained quotes, poetry, jokes, local sayings, and more intended to boost the spirits of their readers. Trotty Veck Messengers were described as people who, “having a wide vision and cheerful disposition themselves, have it in their hearts to give cheer and courage and inspiration to others.”
The publication was started in 1916 by two roommates at Trudeau Sanatorium: Seymour Eaton, Jr., and Charles “Beanie” Swasey Barnet. When the pair complained of feeling down, Eaton’s father, who was an authority on publishing and advertising, suggested they write inspirational messages to one another. They turned this advice into a lifelong career.
Barnet and Eaton based their outlook on the character of Trotty Veck, found in Charles Dickens’ short story, “The Chimes.” In the story, Trotty Veck delivered messages of good cheer to the townspeople, despite his own ill health. This philosophy, and the publication, were both great successes, and Eaton and Barnet sold four thousand copies in the first year alone.
Long after people die, the buildings where they made their lives often remain. Many visitors to the museum follow the footsteps of a family member who came to Saranac Lake with tuberculosis. Often the only trace that remains is the address of a cure cottage and a porch where their relative once took the fresh air.
Places anchor the past. Together with our partners at Adirondack Architectural Heritage, we work to document the places that anchor the history of the Saranac Lake region — from cure cottages to churches to great camps — these structures stand as lasting memorials to the humans who built and cared for them over generations.
Since we first opened our museum doors in 2009, thousands have come to learn about Saranac Lake’s history as a center for tuberculosis research and treatment. Visitors often ask about the cost of care and who was able to afford it. Was Saranac Lake’s fresh air treatment just for rich people? Did people of different ethnic groups and social classes have access to the cure?
These were topics we discussed with a school group this past March. The students were participating in the spring break program of the Division of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at SUNY Potsdam. We were days away from the pandemic shutdown, and Saranac Lake’s historic connection to infectious disease felt newly relevant that morning.
In the late 1800s, when Saranac Lake was becoming famous as a health resort, one in seven people in the United States was dying of TB. The disease afflicted people from all walks of life. Public health measures and improved living conditions were beginning to lower the rate of infection in the United States. Still, TB continued to spread. It especially plagued poor people, living and working in crowded, poorly ventilated spaces.
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