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Natures Sanitarium: Getting Well in New Mexico


By Kelly Roark

In 1900, a Silver City newspaper proclaimed that—unlike other places in the country—Silver City did not have phthisophobia.  Phthisophobia, or the fear of tuberculosis, was a growing issue in many corners of America at the dawn of the twentieth century.  Public health officials and municipal governments rushed to ban spitting in public places hoping to curb the transmission of tuberculosis through infected sputum.  Anti-spitting signs appeared at train stations, public parks, and even on bricks laid in streets and sidewalks.  This fear of contagion soon turned to discrimination directed at those who were suspected of carrying the disease.  Tuberculars, once treated with charity and hospitality, were no longer welcome everywhere.  Silver City, in particular, and much of the Southwest, in general, were exceptions to this national trend.

At the end of the nineteenth century, health-seekers were an increasingly significant part of the economy and society of territorial New Mexico.  Health-seekers were people who believed or hoped that particular places would make them well and traveled there either temporarily or permanently in order to find relief from a variety of illnesses.  Their travel was influenced by everything from scientific climatology to railroad promotions to physicians’ advice to the suggestions of fellow health-seekers. Health-seeking was common in the 19th century but declined precipitously (but never disappeared) in the age of modern antibiotic treatment and advances in post-war medicine.  Tuberculosis was the disease most often associated with the phenomenon of health-seeking.  Those on the move with tuberculosis were dubbed “lungers,” “consumptives,” or “invalids.”  In the Southwest, so many of them came to seek their health that they were sometimes called the “one lung army.” 

Tuberculosis, however, was not the only ailment that sent folks packing from the fever-stricken lowlands of the South and the industrialized landscapes of the North.  Physicians, climatologists, and all sorts of people believed that particular climates could act as specific remedies for particular diseases.  Asthma, allergies, pneumonia, the range of diseases known as “neuralgia,” mental breakdowns, paralysis, “frailty,” depression, fevers, and even lung troubles resulting from exposure to mustard gas in World War I were some of the reasons thousands of people came to the Southwest hoping to recover lost health.

By the turn of the century, many considered New Mexico a particularly healthy place, but it was a reputation that overturned earlier perceptions of the area as dangerous and unhealthy.  Deeply imbedded anxieties about everything from the aridity of the desert to the potential hostility of native peoples had turned the terra incognita of the Southwest into a place most Anglos feared to tread.  Racism and cultural biases combined with misgivings about the harshness of the environment to shape perceptions of a region that would seem an unlikely place to find frail invalids weakened by chronic disease.  There were many reasons for the shift in perceptions of New Mexico from a threatening and unhealthy place to a restorative one.  Some of the greatest advocates of the new understanding of New Mexico and the Southwest were health-seekers themselves. 

Sanatorium treatment, common across the country and the globe, sought to enforce rest on patients in peaceful and climatically beneficial surroundings.  Sanatoriums stressed altitude, the quality of the air, and tranquility.  Some early health-seekers found these characteristics in New Mexico and published their experiences, encouraging other would-be health-seekers to join them in New Mexico.  Their impressions were echoed by climatologists, who emphasized a statistical analysis of the region.  Climatologists linked factors like altitude, number of days with sunshine, lack of humidity, “electrified air,” and average temperatures to recovery from a number of diseases. 

By 1880, when the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad crossed New Mexico, the territory created the Bureau of Immigration in order to attract settlers.  In the Bureau’s second year, health-seeker William G. Ritch led the organization.  A former newspaper editor in Wisconsin, Ritch promoted the healthiness of the New Mexican climate with an evangelist’s zeal.  Like so many other health-seekers who would come after him, Ritch was a convert.  He was a sick man when he came to New Mexico, and New Mexico, he believed, had cured him.

The railroad industry was a significant player in this health booseterism, as well.  Railroads blanketed the country with their promotional material which encouraged those seeking farms, fortunes, and wellness to make the long trek to the Southwest.  Municipalities were quick to join the railroads, proclaiming the healthfulness of their particular town.  Albuquerque had a number of organizations that sought to promote it as a healthy and health-giving place.  The Commercial Club and Chamber of Commerce asked would-be settlers “Why sacrifice health for wealth when you can have both in Albuquerque?”  They advertised the city as being in “the heart of health country.”

Though most Americans had long since learned to treat these hyperbolic boosters with skepticism, many bought what the promoters of New Mexico were selling.  With no reliable medical treatments for many diseases that plagued Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a cross-country move or visit to salubrious New Mexico held out the hope of improving or arresting illness.  Health-seekers came by the tens of thousands, overwhelming nascent charitable organizations, public health institutions, and the meager visitor accommodations of the area.  At the peak of the health-seeking movement, about one-quarter of all Anglo newcomers had come for their health.  In places like Albuquerque that specifically sought to attract health-seekers, the number was much higher.  In 1913, a physician from the United States Public Health Service made one of the only systematic attempts to estimate the number of tuberculars in New Mexico.  He claimed that, excepting mining towns, between twenty and sixty percent of New Mexico households contained at least one tubercular and that ninety percent of such households were not native New Mexicans.

Among these thousands of health-seekers are many well-known names.  Two of New Mexico’s senators, Clinton P. Anderson and Albert Fall, came to New Mexico in search of restored health.  Many of the most well known artists of New Mexico also came to the state as health-seekers.  They included photographer, Carlos Vierra; poet and author, Alice Corbin Henderson; and painter, Gerald Cassidy.  Architect John Gaw Meem recovered from tuberculosis at Sunmount Sanatorium in Santa Fe where he developed an appreciation for Pueblo and Spanish buildings.  After regaining his health, Meem worked tirelessly to preserve many of the structures he saw as architectural treasures. 

Though health-seekers in New Mexico and the Southwest have attracted little scholarly attention in either U.S. western history or the history of medicine, they played an important role in the development of the region.  We can still see the legacy of the health-seeking era in the state.  Many of the sanatoria that treated health-seekers survived generations of transformation to become the leading hospitals of the state.  Health-seekers also played a significant role in historic preservation efforts, conserving some of New Mexico’s most well-known structures for future generations.  Contemporary perceptions of New Mexico’s people and landscapes also have been shaped by health-seekers who journeyed to nature’s sanitarium.

Sources Used:

Nash, Linda. Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge.  Berkley: University of California Press, 2006.

Jones, Billy M.Health-Seekers in the Southwest, 1817-1900.  Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967.

Rothman, Sheila. Living in the Shadow of Death: Tuberculosis and the Social Experience of Illness in American History.  New York: Basic Books, 1994.

Spidle, Jake. Doctors of Medicine in New Mexico: A History of Health and Medical Practice, 1886-1986.  Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986.

ValenĨius, Conevery Bolton.The Health of the Country: How American Settlers Understood Themselves and the Land.  New York: Basic Books, 2002.