Colorado Springs would not be the city it is today if it weren’t for the existence of the microorganism Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Causative agent of tuberculosis, it was not discovered until 1882 by German physician turned microbiologist, Dr. Robert Koch. Before this date, the etiology of one of the greatest scourges of humanity had been attributed mainly to heredity and familial predilection. Even though the disease was now linked to a specific cause, no targeted treatment was available until the discovery and development of antibiotics in the 1940s, and previously applied treatment modalities remained en vogue.
During the 19th century when tuberculosis incidence reached one of its peaks, therapeutic approaches included a move to a more healthful climate and the ingestion of a diet rich in protein, in an attempt to counteract weight loss, one of the most striking features of the disease, leading to its original name, consumption, or phthisis in Greek, a wasting away. Sufferers were initially encouraged to engage in strenuous physical activity, in order to harden their bodies, but in the latter part of the century the so-called rest cure was favored, based on reports of improvements, if not cures, of the disease, coming out of Germany, where patients were first treated in sanatoria designated for consumptives. Once the sanatorium movement was established in the United States in the early 1880s by Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau at Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks in New York, it spread like a wave over the entire country.
Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs, both on the map for about ten years by then, had not lost any time in advertising their assets: beautiful scenery, high elevation, dry climate, healing mineral waters, and over 300 days of sunshine, resulting in the moniker City of Sunshine for the former. Whereas health seekers, also known as “chasers”, had stayed at local hotels and boarding houses in the early years, multiple sanatoria sprang up after 1890, among them Glockner (later Penrose hospital), Cragmoor (now UCCS), and Modern Woodmen of America (the current site of Mount St. Francis). In order to maximize exposure to fresh air, open-air sleeping porches and tuberculosis huts abounded and can still be found in the area to this day, if not in their original role. Even though “lungers” were welcome at first, once the contagious nature of tuberculosis became known, city ordinances limited new health facilities to areas outside city limits, many private lodging houses excluded “tuberculars”, and public health measures resulted in a ban on communal drinking cups at the springs in Manitou and on public spitting, in the removal of ubiquitous spittoons, and in the introduction of personal sputum cups instead which could be discreetly carried and burned or emptied at the end of the day, in an attempt to lessen the airborne spread of the bacteria.
It is estimated that, by the first decade of the 20th century, one third of Colorado’s population had relocated here in a quest for health. Of the survivors, many individuals remained and shaped our city. Among the pioneer physicians Dr. Boswell Anderson, Dr. Edwin Solly, and Dr. Charles Fox Gardiner (inventor of the Gardiner Sanitary Tent which evolved into the more emblematic tuberculosis huts) loomed large. Artist Artus van Briggle, historian and writer Marshall Sprague, architect Thomas MacLaren, and entrepreneur J. J. Hagerman, major financier of the Midland Railroad Company, also left their indelible mark.
This and much more is featured at our esteemed Pioneers Museum in one of its most popular exhibits which reopened this month, after being closed for over a year of remodeling. Titled City of Sunshine, it elucidates the central role of tuberculosis in and for our region. Don’t miss it! You will leave with the sobering realization that Mycobacterium tuberculosis has not been conquered. Whereas sanatoria dissolved and tuberculosis receded from the public radar screen, drug-resistant strains have emerged, necessitating longer, more expensive courses with second or even third-line antibiotics, conjuring a disquieting scenario: Will we come full circle, having to resort to the erstwhile climate, rest and diet cure yet again?