Bangor fought spread of TB

Posted July 05, 2009, at 6:01 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.

BANGOR IN WAR ON TUBERCULOSIS, announced a headline in the Bangor Daily News a century ago. It concluded too optimistically, “Plague Soon Thing of Past.”

TB was the fourth leading cause of death in Maine in 1909 after “brain disease “ (including strokes), heart disease and pneumonia, according to state death records. The disease, also known as consumption or the Great White Plague, was the number one cause of death across all age groups. More than 1,000 Mainers died of TB in 1909. Many thousands more carried the disease in their lungs. A Bangor Daily News editorial writer called it “Death’s chief harvester.”

Bangoreans enthusiastically mobilized to stamp out the plague. Red Cross Christmas Seals went on sale in Maine for the first time in December 1908. Bangor residents bought them by the thousands at banks, stores and the post office. The money was intended to pay the salary of a city nurse who would conduct a clinic for people with TB.

The Rt. Rev. Robert Codman, Episcopal bishop of Maine, visited in January 1909 to urge the city to form a “tuberculosis class” and hire a “tuberculosis nurse.” The purpose of these measures would be to educate people with “incipient cases” how to get over the disease and to teach patients how to avoid spreading it. Bishop Codman’s lecture was attended by “a large number of the influential Bangor people,” said the Bangor Daily Commercial on Jan. 29.

TB could be treated in its early stages, said doctors, by having patients live and sleep in the open air and eat healthful foods. It was not hereditary, as many people believed.

If people could not be cured, they should at least be taught not to spread it to others. Many believed it was spread by breathing in dust after consumptives spit in public places. People with the disease were urged to carry cups into which they could relieve their lung congestion.

The Bangor Daily News had mounted a campaign in 1906 to get sweepers on the Bangor-Brewer bridge, which was covered at both ends, to work at night so commuters wouldn’t have to breath in the dust they raised.

In 1908, the city had banned spitting in public places. The first arrest was made at the Nickel Theater, Bangor’s first movie theater.

Sixty people died of TB in Bangor in 1909. One of them was Hiland L. Fairbanks, the son of a prominent Bangor family. Fairbanks had been an outstanding athlete at Bangor High School and Bowdoin College. After getting a Harvard law degree, he returned to Bangor and served as a city councilor and city solicitor.

In an effort to cure himself of the disease, Fairbanks “went into the Maine woods in hope of relief” and later to the state sanatorium at Hebron. His death at age 37 on Feb. 15, 1909, which unlike most such deaths was reported in the newspapers, was a shocking reminder that TB killed the privileged as well as the poor.

The visit by Bishop Codman led to the formation of an informal anti-tuberculosis association chaired by Mrs. Samuel R. Prentiss and to the creation of a tuberculosis class in April. The City Council had set aside the voting room for Ward One at the old York Street schoolhouse for the purpose. It was the first free TB clinic in Maine, according to Hiram H. Nickerson in his “History of the Bangor-Brewer Tuberculosis and Health Association.” Dr. Edward R. Mansfield was attending physician and Mrs. Mary McFarland was the nurse.

“Eight patients were present at the last session of the tuberculosis class and four others have applied for admission next Saturday,” reported the Commercial on May 20. “Three of the early patients already show great improvement in weight and temperature. It is the custom of the nurse to weigh the patients and take their temperature and pulse before the doctor arrives. He then has more time to examine each patient, to look over the records of the week and to give directions for home cure during the week to come. The nurse listens to these directions and it is her duty to see that they are carefully followed.”

The nurse also visited the homes where “the cases are hopeless” and where instruction was needed in preventing the spread of the disease. “It is difficult to believe the tales of gross carelessness about infection,” commented the newspaper writer. For example, in one home, a desperately ill father trying to cook for himself and his son was found to be “recklessly expectorating as he worked.” In another home where a girl lay dying of the disease, a younger child was allowed to eat from the invalid’s plate using her spoon.

The money from the sale of Christmas Seals was not enough to support the effort. Mrs. Prentiss held a “garden fete” at her Kenduskeag Avenue home, Elmbank, “one of the handsomest city estates in Maine,” on June 23. “As a gown and hat exhibition” one Bangor Daily News writer found the event “fairly bewildering.” The reporter wrote, “Bangor’s very best was represented and Bangor’s very best was attired in the top layer of the family wardrobe.” The Bangor Band, a gypsy carnival, a maypole dance and other diversions marked the day.

The Bangor Anti-Tuberculosis Association was formally incorporated on July 1, a century ago last week, with the Rev. Henry L. Griffin as president and chairman. Support of the new TB class was one of its main goals. The group would open a small sanatorium in 1912. But it would be many years and several scientific breakthroughs later before the Great White Plague was a thing of the past for most Americans.

An illustrated collection of Wayne E. Reilly’s columns titled “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire” is available at bookstores. Comments may be sent to him at wer@bangordailynews.net.

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