Tuberculosis, also known as "TB", "Consumption" and the "White Plague" are all names for the highly contagious disease that primarily attacks the lungs. It swept through the U.S. long before a vaccine was approved for general use in the 1940s.
As early as the mid 1800s, medical experts proposed the idea that tuberculosis was indeed a curable disease. The introduction of the sanatorium cure provided the first big step toward treatment for tuberculosis. Doctors believed that healthier climates, plenty of fresh air and good nutrition would help cure their patients. This became the blueprint for the subsequent development of sanatoriums.
Sanatoriums provided a dual function: They isolated the sick from the general population, and they forced the patients to rest (as well as eat healthy foods and live a regimented hospital life), thus assisting the healing process.
Virginia Ohlson of Augusta remembers how tuberculosis affected her family.
Her mother had lived with tuberculosis for two years prior to 1931, when she consented to be admitted to the Kansas State Tuberculosis Sanatorium in Norton, Kan. She was reluctant to leave her three little freckle-faced girls, her husband, and their home in Hamilton, Kan.
After the young mother left, the family's physician advised the father to take the girls to the Legionville Preventorium.
"It was probably a place for underprivileged children who were at risk for getting TB. We called it a health resort. Children 6 to 12 years of age were accepted. My little sister, Carol, who was 4, was too young to go," Virginia explained.
Legionville Preventorium, located 11 miles SW of Independence, Kan., was maintained by the American Legion Auxiliary, the Kansas American Legion, and the Kansas Tuberculosis and Health Association. Its mission was to build up resistance in undernourished children against TB. The 388-acre farm, donated in 1931 by Mr. and Mrs. D.A. Dabney as a memorial to their two sons, contained Legionville's three brick and stone buildings. In winter, 20 children could be accommodated, in summer, 50 children. They stayed for periods of six weeks to three months. Legionville operated for 10 years.
Virginia remembers being able to take three swim suits, a pair of sandals and one dress. They wore the swim suits all day, every day. The dress was worn to chapel on Sundays.
"The first thing we learned after arriving at Legionville was that it was a place of rules. No running, jumping, no bouncing a ball above your waist, you couldn't swing beyond the legs of the swing set -- all those things wasted too much energy," she said.
It didn't take the young girl long to break the first rule - the bathroom rule.
"We were allowed to go to the bathroom only twice a day and at specific times. My dad had taken us to the zoo in Independence before we arrived at Legionville. It was a very hot day and I probably drank a lot of water," she continued, "I asked to go to the bathroom and the housemother said it wasn't time yet."
Page 2 of 3 - The six-year-old was shoved in a bathtub for wetting her pants. She soon learned that the reason they were only allowed two cups of water a day was to cut down on bathroom breaks.
Another rule that was hard to follow was at mealtime when they were required to eat everything on their plate. The children were made to sit at the table until their plates were clean. She remembers many evenings alone at the table.
Those who finished their evening meals on time were allowed in the swimming pool, but actual swimming was discouraged because it wasted energy.
The children sunbathed daily and participated in posture exercises, as well.
Naps were also part of the daily routine.
"I must have been a squirmer, because I was sent to the basement to sleep on a cot a few times," she said.
She explained that the basement contained one cot and lots of suitcases and boxes. As a small child, she was curious and spent her time in the basement looking in the luggage and boxes.
Although the children were constantly being cautioned to "not waste energy," most of them followed the rules. Virginia heard of a boy named John whom she never saw, because every time he was allowed out of his room, he would break a rule and have to return.
At the end of seven weeks Virginia's father returned to take the two girls home.
"I remember looking up at Dad and asking him if he thought I could still run? He told me to give it a try."
Virginia remembers running and running that day.
Despite the painful memories, she is not bitter.
"We made it. Not everyone was mean to us. I did learn to eat lots of different things. We came back as plump little girls with good posture... I was sure glad to be home," she added, "Sometimes I just wonder about others who were there."
Virginia's mother returned home after her treatment and life for the family settled back into a normal routine.
In 1943, Selman A. Waksman, who had been working for decades to find an antibiotic that was effective against Mycobacterium tuberculosis, was finally successful.
A rapid succession of anti-TB drugs appeared in the following years and it was soon proven that using a combination of drugs worked best.
Legionville Preventorium, like most others, was closed when tuberculosis was eradicated. The only remnants of the facility are the dairy barn and the large front gate. Its memories are shared only by those who visited inside its walls.
Final thoughts on Tuberculosis
Page 3 of 3 - Despite all the drugs available today, tuberculosis is still a problem in many nations. According to World Health Organization (WHO) estimates, each year, 8 million people worldwide develop active tuberculosis and nearly 2 million die. While the overall rate of new tuberculosis cases has continued to decline in the United States since national reporting began in 1953, the annual decrease in tuberculosis cases has slowed dramatically. TB continues to kill between 2 and 3 million people every year. The WHO estimates that 36 million people will die of tuberculosis by 2020 if it is not controlled.
Sources: "A Guide to the Sunflower State," by Federal Writers Project of the Works Project Administration.
The Independence Historical Museum and Arts Center.
"Tuberculosis History," http://tuberculosis.emedtv.com/tuberculosis/tuberculosis-history.html.