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Endorsements of Minnesota as “Exceedingly Bracing” and “ An Asylum for Invalids,” Inspired Hopes to Cure Tuberculosis

By the middle of the nineteenth century, tuberculosis caused one in five deaths in the United States. Not surprisingly, the first burial in Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery (Layman’s Cemetery) was Carlton Keith Cressey, a ten-month old boy, who died in 1853 from what was then called “consumption.” Six of the 30 people who were buried in Layman’s in the 1850s died from consumption. The cause of death for 11 others in that group was not recorded so the number may have been even higher. This tombstone marks the gravesite of Andrew Berggren, one of 1300 people buried in the cemetery, who died from tuberculosis. He died on February 4, 1908, age 39 years old.

By Sue Hunter Weir

Now that winter is almost over and it’s still a little too soon for us to start worrying about mosquitoes and humidity, we can take a short break from complaining about the weather. Complaining about the weather is part and parcel of living in Minnesota, but that wasn’t always the case. There was a time when Minnesota’s weather was considered one of the state’s major attractions. After visiting Fort Snelling in the 1820s, President Zachary Taylor, endorsed our “exceedingly bracing” weather and wrote that the area was “probably the healthiest in the nation.” Four decades later, civic boosters wrote pamphlets encouraging people from the East Coast and Europe to move here because of our invigorating weather. Minnesota was, they claimed, an “asylum for invalids,” the perfect place to recover from tuberculosis.

Cemetery’s first burial was due to death from tuberculosis: a disease without cure and contagion unknown.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, tuberculosis caused one in five deaths in the United States. Not surprisingly, the first burial in Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery (Layman’s Cemetery) was Carlton Keith Cressey, a ten-month old boy, who died in 1853 from what was then called “consumption.” Six of the 30 people who were buried in Layman’s in the 1850s died from consumption. The cause of death for 11 others in that group was not recorded so the number may have been even higher.

Although claims that a change in climate had curative powers were overstated, there were no other effective treatments at the time. Doctors did not know that tuberculosis was a contagious disease and had little to offer their patients except advice, including advice to travel to healthier parts of the country. That advice, well intentioned though it may have been, helped spread the disease.

Henry David Thoreau and Horace Mann, Jr. sought a “cure” in Minnesota.
One of those who followed his doctor’s advice and came to Minnesota was Henry David Thoreau. He and his traveling partner, Horace Mann, Jr., spent two months here in 1861. Thoreau spent his time pursuing his interests in botany and zoology and visiting St. Anthony and Minnehaha Falls before taking a short excursion up the Minnesota River. Although his traveling partner, Horace Mann Jr., wrote favorably about their experience, if there were any health benefits for Thoreau, they were short-lived. He died less than a year after returning home to Concord, Massachusetts.

Findings of Cause, Contagion, and Cure of the “White Plague” were slow as it affected immigrant families heavily.

As early as 1873, Minnesota’s Board of Health began investigating the effects of Minnesota weather on “diseases of the lung and air passages.” About ten years later there was a major breakthrough in identifying, if not yet treating the disease, when a German physician, Dr. Robert Koch, isolated the tubercle bacillus. Eight years later, in 1890, he produced the first tuberculin.

Yet progress in treating the disease was slow. As urban areas became more crowded, the disease spread so rapidly that it became known as the “White Plague.” Thousands of Minnesotans died from tuberculosis, including over 1,300 who are buried in Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery. The number of people buried there for whom tuberculosis was a secondary, or contributing factor, is unknown.

The disease hit immigrant families and those who lived in crowded houses and apartments particularly hard. While the effects of clean air as a cure for tuberculosis were grossly overstated, there is no doubt that crowded living conditions and poor nutrition contributed to the spread of the disease. At a time when health insurance didn’t exist and paid sick time was unheard of, many who suffered from tuberculosis were forced to keep working (and spreading the disease) because their families needed the income.

Minnesota pioneered early treatment.

By the early twentieth century, it was well understood that tuberculosis was a contagious disease and several hospitals were built in Minneapolis that specialized in treating it. The first was Thomas Hospital which opened in 1908; over 100 people buried in the cemetery died at the Thomas Hospital between 1908, the year that the hospital opened, and 1919, the year that the cemetery was closed to new burials. The majority of those who died were young adults between the ages of 20 and 40. Although the number of deaths attributed to tuberculosis began to decline between 1910 and 1920, it remained a major health concern for several decades. Glen Lake Sanatorium, the last local hospital dedicated to serving those with tuberculosis, closed its doors in 1961.

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