The Star-Herald

Tuberculosis and the sanatorium

In October 1920, all eyes were on Presque Isle as it officially opened a new state-of-the-art sanatorium to treat tuberculosis.  The Northern Maine Sanatorium was ultimately one of nine in Maine.  At the time of opening, staff consisted of a doctor, a superintendent, three nurses and eight other employees.

Tuberculosis is a bacterial disease that usually affects the lungs, although other parts of the body may be affected.  It can affect anyone of any age, although those with weakened immune systems are at greater risk.  It is spread through the air when an infected and untreated individual coughs or sneezes.  In other words, it is an airborne pathogen.  Prolonged exposure is usually necessary for infection to occur.  Symptoms include night sweats, a persistent and sometimes bloody cough, a low-grade fever, fatigue, and weight loss.

Tuberculosis was sometimes known as “consumption” in the old days, as it appeared that the disease “consumed” people from within as they got pale and lost weight.  It was also considered a disease that typically affected the urban poor.  Since the disease is spread via the air, an individual had to be in prolonged and close contact with an infected person to contract the disease.  Although inhabitants of northern Maine could certainly not be considered urban, the disease spread because of the general isolation amongst farmers and their families.

Tuberculosis was considered an epidemic in the 19th century.  The living conditions at that time, such as poverty, malnutrition and poor hygiene, contributed to the spread.  Statistics show that during the height of the tuberculosis epidemic in the United States, one in four people died of TB.  In 1900 America, the three leading causes of death were pneumonia, tuberculosis and diarrhea and enteritis.  

Part of the issue with TB at this time was that the medical field did not know much about it.  In fact, they did not know how it was spread and originally thought it was hereditary.  Without all the facts, it was not clear how to effectively treat it.  

Without a cure or effective treatment, the disease was extremely impactful.  For example, the state of Kentucky released statistics in the 1940s indicating more people died from tuberculosis than from World War II.

Just over 100 years ago, the Aroostook Anti-Tuberculosis Association was formed in order to seek a means to treat those in our area suffering from the disease.  In 1917, a committee traveled to Augusta to obtain funding to build a sanatorium, but the group was unable to obtain adequate financing.

In 1919, the committee from the Aroostook Anti-Tuberculosis Association visited Augusta in another effort to obtain adequate funding.  This time, sufficient funding was obtained with which to build a sanatorium.  As such, the Northern Maine Sanatorium was established in 1919 with $20,000 from the state legislature for the building and $15,000 for treatment and care.  

All in all, seven buildings were constructed along the Reach Road.  The first building was known as the Powers Building.   This building accommodated 20 patients.

The second building, known as the Wilson Building, opened on June 29.  The building, named after Maine State Senator A.C.T. Wilson, later became the women’s building.  It was considered one of the finest of its kind in the state and was even considered unsurpassed in New England.  

In 1923, funding became available for the construction of a children’s building with $50,000 for building construction and $25,000 for maintenance.  The children’s building had 50 beds and contained a nursery, a school and sleeping porches.  In addition, there were plans to include swings, slides, teeters, bars, sandbags, a wading pool and other exercise and recreation equipment.  

Although the first successful immunization against tuberculosis came in 1906, it was not until after World War II that the immunization received widespread acceptance here in the United States.  In 1946, the development of the antibiotic streptomycin afforded an effective treatment and ultimately a cure for tuberculosis.  With the availability of both the immunization and an antibiotic that would cure the disease, the need for sanatoriums began to decline.  

On June 30, 1961, the Northern Maine Sanatorium closed its doors.  Today, the buildings are an apartment complex.

Despite all of the advances in the medical field, tuberculosis is still around today.  However, the demographics are somewhat different and it statistically affects primarily the elderly and those with severely compromised immune systems.  

Kimberly R. Smith is the secretary/treasurer of the Presque Isle Historical Society.

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