Colorado was said to be a high and dry spot for consumptives.
In her 1873 book A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, Isabella Bird observed: “Colorado is the most remarkable sanatorium in the world….The climate is considered the finest in North America….Consumptives, asthmatics, dyspeptics and sufferers of nervous diseases are here in the hundreds and thousands.” Surprisingly, it wasn’t a gold rush or silver boom that created the century’s greatest exodus to Colorado; it was tuberculosis. According to a 1925 health report, “Tuberculosis in Denver,” as much as 60 percent of Colorado’s population migrated to the state, either directly or indirectly, for treatment of “consumption.”
Thousands of Americans seeking a cure (often a last-ditch cure) for their TB migrated west from the 1840s to the 1920s, persuaded by physicians who touted the region as a curative Eden. Doctors told patients to seek out fresh air and sunlight and live close to nature, giving rise to sanitariums with sunrooms and outdoor tents throughout the West. Health seekers founded and developed communities in practically every state west of the Mississippi, with Colorado, southern California, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona receiving the largest influx. In a 1913 health survey, more than half the residents of Pasadena, Denver, Colorado Springs, El Paso, Albuquerque and Tucson claimed that they, their parents or grandparents had migrated there for health reasons. For some, the healthier lifestyle seemed curative. As Denver resident P.T. Barnum observed, “People come here to die, and they can’t do it.”
One of those driven to a healthier climate by TB was George Weeks, a young newspaper reporter from New York who in 1876 spent several months in a sanitarium near San Bernardino, Calif., before resuming his career with the San Francisco Chronicle. Weeks was luckier than most “lungers” in that he fully recovered, writing in his 1928 memoirs, California Copy, that his cure consisted of “life in the open air, hard work, plain food and plenty of sleep.” Weeks’ book no doubt encouraged thousands more to head west for the “cure,” but similar happy endings were hardly guaranteed.
Tuberculosis of the lungs, or consumption, was the leading cause of death in 19thcentury America. By the mid- 1800s, it had already claimed millions, if not tens of millions, of lives worldwide. By 1900 it was still killing a seventh of the human race, and as late as the 1940s it continued to cause more deaths than any other contagious disease, according to Mark Caldwell, author of The Last Crusade: The War on Consumption, 1862–1954. The disease was an equal opportunity illness, striking rich and poor, young and old, male and female. Writer Henry David Thoreau contracted tuberculosis in 1835 and died from it in 1862. President Abraham Lincoln’s 18-year-old son Tad may have died from the disease in 1871. TB also took the lives of such famous 19th-century writers as John Keats, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Louis Stevenson and Stephen Crane. In the Wild West, the most famous victim of consumption was dentist-turned-gambler John Henry “Doc” Holliday.
Born near Griffin, Ga., in 1851, Holliday was 15 when he witnessed the slow, cruel death of his mother from consumption. Soon after graduating from dental school, Holliday himself was diagnosed with the disease. Advised to seek higher and drier climates out West to prolong his life, Holliday opened a dental office in Dallas in 1873, only to find that his hacking cough would drive away patients. Gambling was more lucrative, and he traveled to where games of chance flourished. In Tombstone, Arizona Territory, he helped the Earps win the famous October 1881 fight near the O.K. Corral. “He was gentlemanly, a friendly man, and yet, outside of us boys, I don’t think he had a friend in the territory,” Virgil Earp said. “He was a slender, sickly fellow, but whenever help was needed, Doc was one of the first to saddle his horse and report for duty.”
By 1887, prematurely gray and ailing, Holliday made his way to Glenwood Springs, Colo., hoping the healing power of the thermal waters would restore him. Unfortunately, the sulfurous fumes may have dealt his diseased lungs their deathblow. Doc’s quest to die by gunfire or drinking too much whiskey had eluded him. In the end, even he could see the irony in that. He died with his boots off of tuberculosis at age 36, with the parting words, “This is funny.”
By the end of the 19th century, the “White Plague” was medicine’s fiercest challenge. In the United States, TB had become a national preoccupation and the center of a miniature economy. Towns grew up around the treatment of tuberculosis and the sanitarium cure. Health crusaders flooded the nation with antituberculosis information or propaganda—exhibits, pamphlets, novels, Christmas seals, billboards and mass mailings. Still, little was known about the cause and less about a cure.
Not until 1865 was it proved tuberculosis was contagious, and even then word was slow to get out in places like the frontier West. In 1882 German physician Robert Koch first isolated the tiny rod-shaped bacterium, Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Scientists then discovered that this particular bacillus needs oxygen and moisture to survive and grows best in darkness, replicating itself hundreds of millions of times within a few weeks. TB can spread anywhere in the human body but finds the minute air sacs of the lungs an ideal breeding ground.
These microscopic organisms travel on dust particles or airborne droplets, so the first strategy to retard the spread of TB was to isolate sufferers. The second was to keep them as inactive as possible in hopes the bacterium might eventually seal itself off within the lungs, leaving the surrounding tissue free of infection.
This strategy gave rise to the sanitarium cure. In truth, doctors weren’t sure what might prolong the lives of their patients, but they had heard that drier climates at higher elevations might help. Completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 made westbound travel that much easier. Although the railways didn’t conjure up the theory that promoted the West’s healthful properties, they profited from it. “Go West and Breathe Again!” was one company’s slogan, as the trickle of health seekers swelled into a flood in the 1870s.
While not all health seekers experienced the “new lungs” promised by the move, most nevertheless garnered welcome sympathy out West. The tuberculosis stigma common in the East was largely absent west of the Mississippi. In 1873 The Colorado Springs Gazette noted: “Several consumptives have come here totally unfit …drowning men clutching at straws, and are worthy of our sincerest sympathy.” Of course, a skeptic might add that many Westerners still did not consider TB a contagious disease and that some were getting rich off the influx of Easterners.
Colorado Springs is the city that tuberculosis built. William Jackson Palmer, a Union officer during the Civil War, founded the community in 1871 as a health resort for the wealthy. Sanitariums flourished from the 1890s onward as the treatment of TB became the city’s main draw and industry. Although the nearby gold mines at Cripple Creek accounted for many tycoons, the wealthy residents in the sanitariums added to the economy. By the 1920s there were at least 15 sanitariums, elegant or not.
Although the accommodations varied widely, the treatment was the same: lots of rest, sunshine and fresh air. “So many of the so-called cures were not cures at all,” states Douglas McKay, author of Asylum of the Gilded Pill: The Story of the Cragmor Sanatorium. “They simply forestalled the inevitable death from complications.” The fate of early TB sufferers was often grim. In severe cases, lesions on the lungs continued to grow and multiply, eventually dissolving the lung itself. The patient coughed violently, and each spasm pushed the liquefied lung through its own air passages and out into the air. Eventually blood vessels ruptured, causing the victim to cough up bright red foamy blood. Weight loss, daily fevers, night sweats and exhaustion followed. TB patients often died from exhaustion, organ failure or drowning in their own bodily fluids.
Penicillin was identified in 1929 but proved ineffective against TB. It wasn’t until the early 1940s, with the discovery of streptomycin, that an effective cure was found—a development that would ultimately render sanitariums obsolete. First tested on TB patients at the Mayo Clinic in the winter of 1944, streptomycin was found to kill Mycobacterium tuberculosis within weeks, a process the “rest cure” took at best months or years to complete.
Consumption, and the sanitarium culture that arose in response, impacted the lives of five generations of Americans, healthy and ill. It remains a mystery why the simple act of moving west proved the key to survival for some, while others succumbed. Going west had always proven a gamble for emigrants seeking a better life, and for many TB sufferers looking to extend their lives, the stakes were too high not to test the Western air.
Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.