In the 19th century, tuberculosis – or consumption – had killed one in seven of all people that had ever lived. Not only was tuberculosis a leading cause of death, it was also one of the most feared diseases in the world. At the time, there were no reliable treatments for tuberculosis. Some doctors prescribed bleedings and purging, but most often, simply advised patients to rest, eat well and exercise outdoors. It was estimated, at the turn of the 20th century, 450 Americans died of tuberculosis every day, most between the ages of 15 and 44. The disease was so common and so terrible that it was often equated with death itself.
Tuberculosis was primarily a disease of the city, where crowded and often filthy living conditions provided an ideal environment for the spread of the disease. The urban poor represented the vast majority of tuberculosis victims. Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, patients sought treatment in sanatoriums, where it was believed that rest and a healthful climate could change the course of the disease. In 1882, German microbiologist Robert Koch’s discovery of the tubercle bacillus revealed that tuberculosis was not genetic as many had believed, but rather highly contagious. After some hesitation, the medical community embraced Koch’s findings, and the United States launched massive public health campaigns to educate the public on tuberculosis prevention and treatment.
Around the turn of the 20th century, many private resorts and county-owned sanatoriums began opening to treat the disease. Most of these places were considered upscale and limited to those that could afford it. In an effort to combat the growing epidemic, government funding was secured to purchase land and build a sanatorium. The fear of spreading the infection led to its construction far away from the nearest town. The state sanatorium opened with only room for several dozen patients.
Over the next several decades, the sanatorium grew to house hundreds of patients. The sanatorium’s clinic would treat any citizen who could not afford to go to a private doctor. By the 1980s, with the increasingly low incidence of tuberculosis, the state sanatorium was transferred over to the prison system. At that time, it was one of the last remaining hospitals that was exclusively devoted to treating tuberculosis. While under the operation of the prison system, the building served as a minimum security health care center for male inmates. The property remained under the operation of the Department of Corrections until it was permanently closed.