Bangor people mobilized to fight tuberculosis a century ago. Hundreds of Bangoreans had died of the disease in the last couple of decades, and many more were ill. Everyone knew a victim. Anyone with a persistent cough or a pale face was under suspicion.
The effort to eradicate this dread disease sounds awe-inspiring today, considering there was no known cure at the time and little in the way of public funds. Bangoreans formed a local anti-tuberculosis association. They sold Christmas seals. They founded a TB clinic on York Street and a small “camp” or sanatorium out on the Kenduskeag Stream. They hired a series of “tuberculosis nurses.”
Local doctors played an active role in directing the effort, while socialites raised money and galvanized the community to action. The Great White Plague picked its victims — rich and poor — indiscriminately, although people living in crowded conditions were more apt to get the infectious disease.
“I personally have come in contact recently with more than 200 cases of advanced tuberculosis in Bangor,” Miss Madeline Mosher, the city’s tuberculosis nurse, told the Bangor Daily News on June 13, 1912. “In my opinion there are at least from seven to eight hundred cases in this city requiring treatment.” The percentage of tuberculosis among schoolchildren was “unusually large,” she said.
Miss Mosher called for the opening of a new kind of school. The open-air school movement had begun in Europe and only recently spread to the United States. “This city must have as soon as possible an open-air school for the education and treatment of the children,” she said, “and with the establishment of such an institution more real good will be accomplished in lowering the average of tuberculosis and all kinds of other preventable disease than in any other way.”
Fresh air, healthy food and exercise, it was widely believed, could cure folks with mild cases of TB. Living outdoors summer and winter was the ideal situation many health authorities preached. Some people were partially walling off porches or building well-ventilated additions to their homes where tubercular relatives could spend a good deal of their time.
“Fresh air as the means for the cure of tuberculosis is no mere fad,” Miss Mosher told a reporter for the Bangor Daily Commercial on Nov. 15, 2012, a century ago this week. “A case of tuberculosis was never known to develop in a person who from childhood up had lived and slept in the open air.”
The next day the city’s anti-tuberculosis association opened a “tuberculosis exhibit” in a big room in the One Hundred Associates Building on Park Street. Various “out-of-door comforts” had been assembled. The goal was to teach people how to live outdoors most of the time even in the cold Maine winter and the worst storms.
“Sitting-out bags” were among the items on display. These were intended especially to be used at open-air schools or anywhere else in the out-of-doors where children were expected to spend long periods of time during cold weather. Carded wool puffs, sleeping bags and sleeping hoods were also on display. Foot warmers made of sheepskin and lined with fleece were meant to be slipped on over ordinary shoes.
One could purchase such items from stores or make them inexpensively. The Charity Circle of King’s Daughters (an organization that helped young single women who moved to Bangor) had made many of the homemade items.
Old newspapers were an important ingredient. They were used as insulating pads layered between mattresses and bedsprings to keep out the cold air. The sitting-out bags were lined with newspapers as were homemade sleeping bags.
What of people living in homes with no porches or other outdoor facilities? The “window tent” was the answer. One could live outside while staying in the house — well almost. Pictures on the Internet of these contraptions show a three-sided tentlike affair covering the top half of a bed pushed against a wall where there is a window. One could open the window and enjoy fresh air without cooling off the whole house or bothering other inhabitants of the room.
The effectiveness of this fresh-air regime in stopping TB is difficult to gauge today, but at the very least it must have isolated sick people, thus reducing the spread of the illness. The death rate for TB was dropping anyway decade after decade all through this period, even before the discovery of antibiotic drugs.
The battle to halt the Great White Plague took many forms. About this same time, the members of the Frances Dighton Williams chapter of the DAR launched a Bangor beautification campaign. One of their goals was to stop downtown street sweeping during business hours “for the clouds of dust ruin the dresses of shoppers and do much damage to goods in stores,” reported the Bangor Daily News.
Left unsaid was the fact many people feared TB germs could be spread by breathing in street sweepings in public places where victims of consumption had spit on the ground. The fear of spreading TB in that manner had already been the focus of a battle a few years back over sweeping the Bangor-Brewer covered bridge during the day. By 1912 Bangor had already passed a law against spitting in public places, and it was first enforced in a movie theater.
One final note: Bangor finally started an open-air school — as advocated by Miss Mosher, the TB nurse — in 1921. Located in three different buildings over the years, including the Coe estate on Court Street, the program was closed by the Bangor School Board in 1946. The details of this interesting experiment in preventing tuberculosis are contained in a University of Maine master’s degree thesis by Marion Francis Quinn, who was the program’s last director.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper 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 firstname.lastname@example.org