Tuberculosis was the top killer of Americans in the late 1800s and early 1900s. There was no cure at the time so health officials encouraged sufferers to leave behind stuffy cities and get some fresh air and sunshine. Colorado had plenty of both.
In a new PBS documentary, "The Forgotten Plague," which airs today, historian Sheila Rothman says TB patients came to get cured. "Come west and get life," she says. "It was a health giving Eden, this outdoors beautiful unsettled part of the country.”
One of those who heard the call was History-Colorado president Ed Nichols’ great grandfather, who came here from Manhattan in 1872 because of TB.
“He was told that if he wanted to live another year he had to get to a drier climate," she says. "He moved out to Colorado and actually ended up in Manitou Springs. He lived there and brought his family out a year later."
Sixty years later, Nichols’ mother came to Colorado Springs to heal from TB. By one estimate, 60 percent of the state’s population in 1925 came to Colorado because of TB.
This influx has had long-lasting impact, says University of Denver historian Jeanne Abrams. Many of Denver’s hospitals started as sanatoriums -- the facilities designed to help TB patients. National Jewish Hospital and Swedish Medical Center are among these institutions, helping poor and indigent TB patients arriving in the state. And there were thousands of TB patients who needed help.
“Some East Coast aid groups were sending poor TB patients west with a basket of fruit and a one way ticket,” Abrams says.
She says they came first by the hundreds, then by the thousands. She notes that although most people think that the main driver of population growth in Colorado was mining or ranching, it was actually TB patients coming for “the cure.”
“They came for the health, not for the wealth,” Abrams says. "Colorado became known as the World's Sanatorium."
A number of famous people came to Colorado because they or a family member had TB, including Israel’s Golda Meir, poet Robert Frost, and Robert Speer who stayed and eventually became mayor of Denver. Doc Holladay, known for his involvement in the OK Corral shootout, came for TB treatment, too, and eventually died in Glenwood Springs.
TB affected all aspects of life during that era, says Abrams. Women raised their hemlines so their skirts wouldn't drag in the filth, men shaved their beards, so as not to carry germs in the hair, playgrounds became popular so that kids would get into the healthy outdoor air, and Kleenex was invented.
In the 1940s the right cocktail of antibiotics was finally discovered and TB deaths in the US and other countries declined dramatically. TB is still a major problem in the less developed world. It is estimated that one third of the world’s population is infected with TB.