WAYNE E. REILLY

Tuberculosis crusade galvanized Bangor

Posted Jan. 08, 2012, at 3:27 p.m.

An oddly titled editorial, THE ONE-LUNGERS GET BUSY, appeared in the Bangor Daily News on Nov. 8, 1911. The subject was not the new one-cylinder boat engines, also called one-lungers, that could be heard chugging up and down the Penobscot River. Rather it was about the treatment of victims of tuberculosis, the dreaded disease that had killed thousands of Mainers over the past decade.

Unlike other dreaded diseases of the day, such as typhoid, cholera, small pox and infantile paralysis, TB had recently spawned a community movement complete with local organizations such as the Bangor Anti-Tuberculosis Association. Society women raised funds by holding garden parties, and public-minded residents bought Red Cross seals at Christmas. This money was used to hire a public health nurse, operate a clinic on York Street and conduct public education campaigns.

That was not nearly enough for Bangor’s wealthy reformers, however. They also wanted to open a small sanatorium, or “TB camp” as they sometimes called it, for people who did not have the resources to be treated at home or to go to one of the treatment centers in Maine at Hebron and Fairfield. While a TB diagnosis had once been a death sentence, by 1911 it was believed a cure involving fresh air, simple food and rest was possible if the disease was detected early.

Everyone knew someone — either a relative or a neighbor — who had died of “the white plague.” Nearly 750 people had died in Bangor between 1895 and 1909. Hundreds of consumptives walked the streets spreading the illness that they often didn’t know they had. Hence the attention of newspaper editorial writers.

Living in the fresh air even in the coldest weather was one popular remedy. As ordered by their doctors when fall began to turn to winter, “the tubercular patients of eastern Maine are getting ready to hibernate — not exactly out-of-doors — but where the cool and bracing breezes of winter waft shrilly — and often freezingly across their sleeping quarters,” said the newspaper editorial in the Bangor Daily News.

Wealthy people took to the woods or the mountains or the southwestern desert for long periods of time hoping to be cured. Moving onto the porch was an alternative for people of lesser means. “Some board up the piazzas to a foot or two above the level of the bed, fit shutters to the space above for stormy weather, and screens for cold and fair weather; and with plenty of warm, wooly blankets to wrap around the body, and with faces fully exposed to the wafts from Nature’s oxygen jar they sleep,” explained the newspaper.

The Bangor TB association’s sanatorium appears to have been initiated in the summer of 1909. “Sanatorium work was instituted with three patients boarded at a home in East Eddington,” according to Hiram H. Nickerson, compiler of “History of the Bangor-Brewer Tuberculosis and Health Association.” One of the patients, however, was transferred to the Hebron sanatorium “because of not following the doctor’s instructions. The cost of that patient was $14 a week and he was cared for there for nine weeks, which nearly broke the treasury.”

In 1910, the effort was moved to Bangor. “A small one room portable house was utilized this year as a sanatorium,” according to Nickerson.

A more detailed account of this effort can be found in the Bangor Daily Commercial on Nov. 2, 1910. The newspaper described, “a portable house for out-of-door sleeping and resting, which the association is going to put into use on Valley avenue, near Bullseye bridge. The house, which was delivered to the association from W. R. Clark in South Orrington, contains one large room, the four walls are fitted with as many windows as strength and convenience would allow. These all open allowing the occupant to sleep practically the same as out-of-doors with nothing but a roof to protect him from the wind and the rain and the snow. This outdoor camp is but one, and in time when there is available money it is hoped that it will be the nucleus of a settlement of similar houses.”

The portable house or camp was one part of a larger arrangement. “We make use of a home on Valley avenue where patients board at the cost of $4.50 with special dieting and care. By the addition of a portable house bought and erected by the association their number can be increased,” the Rev. Henry Griffin, president of the association, told the Home Culture Club, reported the Bangor Daily News on Dec. 21, 1910. A pressing problem, he said, was paying for the room and board for the “tuberculosis poor.”

Problems developed after that report. In 1911, the association lost its records in the city’s great fire. Then, its funds were frozen when the organization’s treasurer went into receivership. Whether the new portable building on Valley Avenue was open at all that year is hard to tell. An unnamed member told the Bangor Daily News on Dec. 9, 1911, “We must start again the open air camp, hoping that if we raise the funds to get it well started, the state will give us an appropriation this time.”

Things got underway again in 1912. Hiram Nickerson’s notes indicate that in March, the association rented “a small cottage on the banks of the Kenduskeag Stream near Bulls Eye Bridge as a sanatorium.” In April the facility opened with one patient and soon had five more. The cost of patient care had risen to $5 a week. A small appropriation from the state of $1,000 a year for the next two years would be in the offing in 1913.

By June, 1913, the camp accommodated a dozen patients. Forty cases were treated there during past year. Hundreds more were treated at the clinic or at home by the city’s public health nurse. Some terminal cases were sent to the city farm.

Then disaster struck. The sanatorium burned on the night of November 30. The nine patients were moved to the “office roof porch” of the Eastern Maine General Hospital where they would continue to get plenty of fresh air.

Bangor Daily Commercial stories revealed that this camp had belonged to wealthy timberlands owner Samuel R. Prentiss, who had generously loaned it to the TB association. What would happen now?

Within a few days, association officers voted to rebuild. A stock company was formed in March 1914 and 600 shares at $10 a share had been sold by the end of May. Mrs. Samuel R. Prentiss held a garden party at her Kenduskeag Avenue home to raise money to equip the new building.

Raising money had become easier. By this time the TB cause had earned a place of importance in the community, mused compiler Nickerson, but it would be decades and the development of antibiotic drugs before the white plague was mainly a bad memory for most Americans.

Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears every other Monday. An illustrated collection, “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at wreilly.bdn@gmail.com.

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