Seeking a Cure, Transforming New Mexico:
The Lungers and Their Legacy
by Nancy Owen Lewis, Ph.D.
Thousands of people flocked to New Mexico from 1880 through 1940 seeking a cure for tuberculosis, the leading cause of death in America. These lungers, as they were called, included artists such as Will Schuster and Carlos Vierra, who “came to heal and stayed to paint.” Bronson Cutting, brought to Santa Fe on a stretcher in 1910, became the publisher of the Santa Fe New Mexican and a powerful U.S. senator. Others included William R. Lovelace and Edgar T. Lassetter, founders of the Lovelace Clinic, as well as Senator Clinton P. Anderson, poet Alice Corbin Henderson, architect John Gaw Meem, aviator Katherine Stinson, and Dorothy McKibbin, gatekeeper for the Manhattan Project—to name just a few.
By 1920, health seekers comprised an estimated ten per cent of New Mexico’s population. Although the tubercule bacillus had been isolated in 1882, the development of streptomycin and other effective drugs would not occur until the 1940s. During the intervening decades, the medically approved regimen consisted of nutritious food, fresh air, and rest, preferably in a high, dry, and sunny place. New Mexico, with its high elevation, abundant sunshine, and dry climate was considered ideal. The New Mexico Bureau of Immigration, established in 1880, wasted no time in advertising the territory’s healing climate as a way to promote New Mexico during its long struggle for statehood. New Mexico: The Tourists Shrine, published in 1882, claimed that:
The lowest death rate from tubercular disease in America is in New Mexico. The census of 1860 and 1870 gives 25% [of all deaths] in New England . . . and 3% in New Mexico. The whole Territory has always been astonishingly free from epidemic disease.
As further proof of New Mexico’s healthful environment, the Bureau’s 1889 Winter Edition claimed that “diseases among children are singularly infrequent and the doctor would starve to death who made a specialty waiting on the little folks.”
In 1882, German scientist Robert Koch discovered Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacillus responsible for tuberculosis, which changed the perception of the disease and its treatment. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, sanatoriums were established to care for as well as to isolate those afflicted with tuberculosis, a disease now considered contagious. New Mexico’s old military forts—especially Fort Stanton in Lincoln County and Fort Bayard near Silver City—were viewed as possible sites. Nothing definite would happen, however, until the end of the Spanish American War in 1898. By this time, explained Lois G. Seibel:
A considerable number of tuberculosis patients had accumulated at the U.S. soldiers home in Washington DC. No special treatment had been undertaken for their care and there was thought to be a substantial danger of infection for the other inmates. The climate in Washington was not considered to be advantageous in the treatment of tuberculosis.
It soon became apparent that separate facilities in a more salubrious climate were needed to treat military personnel suffering from this disease.
To meet this need, two facilities were established in 1899—the U.S. Marine Hospital Sanatorium at Fort Stanton and the U.S. Army General Hospital for tubercular soldiers at Fort Bayard. These two institutions helped legitimate New Mexico’s claims as a health resort. In his 1908 Report to the Secretary of the Interior, Governor George Curry wrote:
The splendid successes in the treatment of tuberculosis being achieved by the government army sanatorium at Fort Bayard, in Grant County, and by the Marine-Hospital Service Sanatorium, at Fort Stanton, in Lincoln County, furnish constant and convincing proof of the right of New Mexico to the title of ‘the nation’s sanatorium’ and to the wonderful effect of the climate in checking the white plague.
But when the U.S. Congress proposed establishing a leper colony in one of New Mexico abandoned military posts, the territorial legislature objected vehemently. The result was Joint Resolution 8, dated, February 24, 1905, which stated that:
We as representatives of the people of the Territory of New Mexico, object, protest against and deprecate such action on the part of the Senate of the United States and ask the members of the house of representatives where the bill is now pending to oppose it and defeat it for we consider it an insult that our fair and healthy commonwealth should be chosen by congress as the abiding place for such unfortunates. . .
Tuberculosis, however, was another matter. In 1903 the Territorial Legislature passed “An Act to Encourage the Establishment of Sanatoria in the Territory of New Mexico.” Under its provisions, any institution that spent $100,000 within two years for a sanatorium would be exempt from all taxation for six years thereafter. New Mexico continued to welcome tuberculars long after other states tried to restrict their immigration. In 1909, the state health officer for Texas proclaimed Consumptives Unwelcome in Texas. In contrast, The Land of Sunshine, published in 1906 by the Bureau of Immigration, stated that “Health seekers are invited. New Mexico does not intend to shut the door upon them.”
Consequently, health seekers continued to pour into New Mexico, and by the time it finally achieved statehood in 1912, nearly forty sanatoriums had been established. By the 1930s, the number would swell to nearly sixty. Although sanatoriums offered a variety of interventions, the primary treatment regimen consisted of fresh air, ample food, and rest. Patients at Fort Stanton, for example, were required to “stay outdoors at least eight hours daily and always when indoors keep the windows open.” Patients at Santa Fe’s Sunmount Sanatorium stayed in special cottages equipped with small screened sleeping porches. Rest, in fact, was a key element. In one Albuquerque sanatorium, notes Jake Spidle, patients were required to sleep at least ten hours at night and then to spend another seven hours during the day “chasing the cure,” a term possibly derived from the chaise lounges on which they rested.
Patients were also encouraged to eat well. According to Dr. L. G. Rice, president of the New Mexico Board of Health, this meant “at least three good square meals a day, with milk between meals, but in the beginning of treatment, six glasses of milk a day are beneficial.” In fact, gaining weight was considered such an important indicator of progress that in his 1901 Report to the Secretary of the Interior, Governor Miguel Otero provided a list of 100 patients at Fort Stanton and the amount of weight gained or lost “during the week ending December 29, 1900.”
Another key element in “chasing the cure” was a cheerful, positive outlook—no easy task given the seriousness of the disease. Consequently, sanatoriums such as Sunmount sponsored concerts, lectures, horseback rides, and excursions to nearby Pueblos. Billiards and croquet were popular, and many sanatoriums produced their own newsletters. The Killgloom Gazette, published in Albuquerque, featured articles such as “Cardinal Principles for Health Seekers,” which described the need for rest, good food, and “above all, an optimistic, hopeful and peaceful frame of mind… A cheerful and hopeful spirit has a great influence over the processes of the body.”
Although a number of lungers recovered, one study estimated that from the beginning of the sanatorium movement through the 1940s, nearly 25 percent of patients died in the hospital, while 50 percent of those released succumbed within five years of discharge. At a cost of $50-$100 a month, and with an average stay of nine months, many health seekers couldn’t afford to stay at a sanatorium. Instead, they “chased the cure on their feet,” hoping the climate would be sufficient.
With so much focus on attracting health seekers and providing facilities to address their needs, neither the Bureau of Immigration nor the territorial governors seemed concerned about the health of the local population, at least judging from official reports. In 1906, the Bureau of Immigration noted: “That the native people of this section experience such wonderful immunity from tuberculosis, especially of the respiratory tracts, must have its explanation in the very favorable climatic conditions surrounding.” In 1908, Governor George Curry reported that “fourteen cases of smallpox . . . and a few small scattered epidemics of scarlet fever have been the extent of the contagious diseases reported to the territorial board of health. With these exceptions the health of the Territory has been remarkably good.”
Was the health really that good or did territorial officials simply ignore existing problems? Perhaps they lacked the information they needed to accurately evaluate the situation, for in the absence of a fully-funded department of health, assessing the health needs of its citizens would have been difficult. Officials, however, may also have found it problematical to promote New Mexico’s healthful climate without also proclaiming the health of its own population.
In 1918 several events occurred that would dramatically alter official perceptions about the state of health in New Mexico. That summer, several hundred New Mexico soldiers were discharged from the military due to tuberculosis. Hoping to find treatment for them, Governor Washington E. Lindsey contacted numerous sanatoriums, including St. Joseph’s in Albuquerque, whose response was typical of those he received.
In reply to your favor of the 2nd, .. we have a ward containing 11 beds for tubercular cases . . . At the present time, these beds are occupied by tuberculars from almost every state in the union. We have but one vacancy in this ward.
Governor Lindsey also sought help from the Adjutant General in Washington, who replied that “In the absence of any law providing compensation, pensions, etc. for men who have been discharged from the army on account of disability not incurred in the line of duty, I do not see that the War Department can extend any relief to these men.”
Distressed by the lack of services, Governor Lindsey contacted the U.S. Surgeon General, who agreed to send a physician from the U.S. Public Health Service to conduct a statewide health survey. Dr. J. W. Kerr was in the midst of his study when the 1918 flu struck New Mexico. In the absence of a public health department, Kerr took charge of supplying physicians and supplies to communities in need of assistance. When he left New Mexico in late November, he estimated that the flu had claimed at least 2,000 lives, but nobody knew for sure, for there was no centralized record keeping system. In contrast to earlier reports, Kerr’s study presented a very different picture of health in New Mexico.
The Spanish American element suffers increasingly from tuberculosis, and the Indian is extremely prone both to tuberculosis . . . and trachoma. Over crowding and unhygienic habits adversely affect both Mexicans and Indians, while economic factors affect many of the whites who came to the Southwest in search of health.
He urged New Mexico to establish a Department of Health. His recommendations were disseminated through a series of strongly-worded press releases.
Let anyone who doubts the need in New Mexico of an adequate State Department of Health look about him and see the enormous economic loss caused thru the sickness and premature death, not only of those who come here to seek the benefits of our climate, but of those near and dear . . .
In 1919, the New Mexico Legislature finally established a Department of Health, which immediately began tackling the state’s many health problems, including tuberculosis. In 1936 the state established its own tuberculosis sanatorium. By this time, however, the sanatorium movement had begun to wane. In fact, during the depression, the flood of out-of-state health seekers dwindled sharply, as fewer people could afford the luxury of extended care in a private sanatorium. Many came to realize that it was the sanatorium regimen—with its emphasis on rest, diet, and fresh air—and not its location that was critical.
The final end to the health seeker movement came in 1944 with the discovery of streptomycin, and eventually other drugs, which proved highly effective in treating tuberculosis. Sanatoriums had become medical anachronisms. One by one they closed, many converting to other uses. Fort Bayard was taken over by the state for use as a long-term medical facility, while Sunmount became part of the Carmelite Monastery. Their legacy, however, lives on in the contributions made by the health seekers, who a century ago helped transform a territory into a state.
Caldwell, Mark. The Last Crusade: The War on Consumption, 1862-1954. New York: Atheneum, 1988 (116).
Governor George Curry Papers, 1959-092, New Mexico State Records Center and Archives (NMSRCA), Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Governor Miguel A. Otero Papers, 1959-090, NMSRCA, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Jacobs, Philip P. The Campaign against Tuberculosis in the United States. New York: Charities Publication Committee, Russell Sage Foundation, 1908 (285).
Jones, Billy M. Health-Seekers in the Southwest, 1817-1900. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967 (189).
Kerr, J. W. “Public Health Administration in New Mew Mexico.” Influenza Outbreak, 1918, Governor Washington E. Lindsey papers, 1959-096, NMSRCA, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
New Mexico Territorial Bureau of Immigration Records, 1959-114, NMSCRA, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Reports to the Governor, World War 1, Governor Washington E. Lindsey Papers, 1959-096, NMSRCA, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Rice, L.G. “Cardinal Principles for Health Seekers.” Killgloom Gazette 1 (4): 1 May 1914. Albuquerque and New Mexico Pamphlet Collection, MSS 112 BC, Center for Southwest Research, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Seibel, Lois G. “An Overview of the Medical Post Histories in the New Mexico Territory,” 1978 (15), Adjutant General Collection, 1973-019, NMSCRA, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Spidle, Jr., Jake W. Doctors of Medicine in New Mexico: A History of Health and Medical Practice, 1886-1986. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986 (100, 142).
Territorial Legislature of New Mexico. 1905 Acts of the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of New Mexico, Thirty-sixth Session. Santa Fe: New Mexican Printing Company, 1905.
health, healthcare, tuberculosis, climate, Will Schuster, Carlos Vierra, Bronson Cutting, William R. Lovelace, Edgar T. Lassetter, Lovelace Clinic, Senator Clinton P. Anderson, Alice Corbin Henderson, John Gaw Meem, Katherine Stinson, Dorothy McKibbin, Manhattan Project, Governor George Curry, Governor Washington E. Lindsey, scarlet fever, smallpox
Thousands of people flocked to New Mexico from 1880 through 1940 seeking a cure for tuberculosis, the leading cause of death in America during those times.
(c) Nancy Owen Lewis, Ph.D. All rights reserved.
John Gaw Meem