One woman’s journey for a tuberculosis cure

Terri Sinnott, MA
Chicago, Illinois, United States (Summer 2013)

Edmund and Theresa Brouillette
c. 1900, Sinnott Family Collection

“By 1900 . . . one-third of the new-comers to Colorado had come in search of health benefits.”1 My great-grandmother Theresa Brouillette became the “one in three” on October 31, 1902 when she boarded the train in Vincennes, Indiana to journey to Pueblo, Colorado for the fresh air to cure her tuberculosis (TB). Theresa’s 103 letters home document the physical and mental challenges of a patient searching for the ultimate cure.
Tuberculosis was the leading cause of death in the nineteenth and into the twentieth century.2 Many believed that it was hereditary or spontaneous, until Robert Koch’s 1882 discovery of the tuberculosis bacilli. Even though the cause of TB was then determined, a cure would not be developed until the discovery of streptomycin’s curative power in 1943.
Treatments varied greatly in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Some were contradictory—wet and damp air versus dry air; lower elevations, including caves versus high elevations; brisk exercise versus no exercise, including reading and conversing. While some patients could afford treatment at spas or sanitariums, the less well-off had to take treatments at home or use their savings to move to boarding houses in cities where the climate was thought restorative. In 1900 “. . . one in every 10.5 deaths in Indiana was attributed to pulmonary tuberculosis.”3 Theresa had been diagnosed in 1894. Having suffered through many treatments with little or no success, she believed Colorado was the land of promise and her last hope. What Theresa found in Pueblo was an informal network of tuberculosis victims who traded treatments and offered moral support.
Twelve raw eggs, one pound raw meat, one pint of milk, one bottle of creosote—at first glance, this might appear to be a grocery list. In reality, these “ingredients” were part of Theresa’s treatment regimen. She learned of even more options while boarding with relatives, two of whom, Oliver and Will, had mild forms of the disease. She wrote:

My heart is getting better but I don’t know what to do about my cough. Beard’s medicine don’t do one bit of good it seems and Oliver was letting me take the treatment he took but it has the spray4 so I won’t use it. I cough a great deal . . . I haven’t taken any creosote medicine5 since Sat. I have been taking some of Oliver’s capsules6 . . . . We hold a consultation in the dining room every night. He brought home a new machine for the head & throat the other night, and it had a spirits lamp when he had it all ready he turned a-round to get a match and upset the med. & alcohol all over the white table cloth. (November 7, 1902)

The longer her stay in Colorado, the more advice Theresa received on cures. Her desperation leads her to try treatments that she learned of by word of mouth—any option that would give her hope of recovery.
“I drink a quart of milk and six raw eggs per day . . . . I met a lady yesterday that took salt water injections and wore the salted shirts

7 but she says when she quite [sic] taking them she got to feeling bad.” (November 19, 1902) “I have a notion to try ozonultion.8 These spring days are effecting [sic] all the eastern people that are here.” (March 14, 1903) “If I were near to where the butchers kill I would try to drink blood.9 I think I could do it or at least I’d try awful hard.” (March 18, 1903)
After showing few if any signs of improvement, Theresa came back to Vincennes at the end of March, 1903. She succumbed to the disease on March 1, 1905.

Notes

  1. “By 1900 . . . one-third of the newcomers to Colorado had come in search of health benefits.” Sheila M. Rothman, Living in the Shadow of Death Tuberculosis and the Social Experience of Illness in American History, (New York: Basic Books, A Division of Harper Collins Publishers, Inc. 1994), 132.
  2. Tuberculosis refers to a disease that was “. . . the leading cause of death in the United States throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. From 1800 to 1870 tuberculosis was responsible for one out of every 5 deaths.” Rothman, 2.
  3. ”The statistics for 1900 . . . concerning deaths in the state [Indiana], showed that 3,164 persons, or one in every 10.5 deaths, died of pulmonary tuberculosis.” Harriett Salinger Iglauer, The Program for the Control and Prevention of Tuberculosis in Indiana (Indianapolis: Tuberculosis Association, 1943), 11.
  4. “treatment . . . spray” refers to one of many treatments that were based on inhalants. “The basic idea of inhalation was to deliver medicated vapor to the throat, nasal passages, bronchial tubes, and lungs. The means of conveyance could be impregnated steam, spray, fume, or compressed air. Among the most popular medicinals were creosote, carbolic acid, chloroform, mercurials, chloride of ammonium, iodine gas, hemlock extract and turpentine . . . patients used inhalers at home, in their hotel rooms, and traveling public conveyances…They could usually rig them up themselves and needed physicians only for procuring the more complicated medicinal compounds.” Katherine Ott, Fevered Lives Tuberculosis in American Culture since 1870 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996) 45, 46.
  5. “creosote medicine” refers to creosote and its derivatives that were commonly used treatments for curing tuberculosis. While there was no scientific data to prove that it was a cure, creosote was popularly used in various forms including liquids and capsules. The Journal of Infectious Diseases, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Aug. 1920). “The Influence of Creosote Gumacol and Related Substances of the Tubercle Bacillus and On Experimental Tuberculosis,” by Lydia M. DeWitt, Binzi Suyenaga, H. Gideon Wells http://www.jstor.org/pss/30080589 (June 13, 2010); “The Creosote Treatment for Tuberculosis,” The American Journal of the Medical Sciences: Vol. 108, Issue 1 (July 1894), 90. Therapeutics: PDF only. http://journals.lww.com/amjmedsci/Citation/1894/07000/TheCreosote (June 13, 2010). “In the United States creosote was largely abandoned by 1900 because it was found to destroy the pancreas.” Katherine Ott, Fevered Lives Tuberculosis in American Culture since 1870 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 45.
  6. “capsules” refers to creosote in the form of capsules. One such product was Sommerbrodt’s Creosote Capsules that contained a combination of creosote and cod liver oil. W. Thornton Parker, “Therapeutic Sommerbrodt’s Creosote Capsules in the Treatment of Tuberculosis,” American Journal of the Medical Sciences: Vol. 108, Issue 2 (August, 1894), 215. http://journals.lww.com/amjmedsci/Citation/1894/08000/Sommerbrodt (June 13, 2010).
  7. “salt water injections and wore the salted shirts” refers to the use of salt as a curative. “Sea-salt is the residuum of evaporated sea-water; and if it be added in proper quantity to a bath, so that the mineral ingredient approximates to that contained in sea-water, it will be very much more efficacious than a simple fresh-water bath, in consequence of the stimulating action of the water upon the skin imparted by the saline matter which it holds in solution . . . It will often be found that consumptive patients, with feeble circulation and cold hands and feet, are much benefitted by a salt-water bath, who could not bear the shock of fresh water.” E. H. Ruddock, M.D., On Consumption and Tuberculosis of the Lungs: Their Diagnosis, Causes, and Preventative and General Treatment 2nd ed. (London: Homeopathic Publishing Company, 2, Finsbury Circus, E.C., 1873), 88.
  8. “Ozonultion” refers to the process of ozone being inhaled. “. . . during the past five years I have used with marked results, ozone with camphoric super-oxide as a carrier . . . Ozone thus inhaled into the lungs oxidizes and destroys various toxines produced by the bacilli, and also . . . vitalizes the corpuscles of the blood and consequently the circulation of the entire body. Pure, rich ozonized blood, as is well known, means resistance to disease and offers the best condition of cure where disease has gained a foothold.” Cotton, James H. M.D., L.R.C.P. and Edin, S. “The Curability of Pulmonary Tuberculosis; With Reports of Cases Treated by Inhalation of Ozone,” The Montreal Medical Journal Vol. XXXV, No. 1, (January, 1906), ed. by George Edgeworth Fenwith, Thomas George Roddick, George Ross (Gazette Printing Company, 1906), 101-102, referenced in Julian Holmes, Ozone and Ozone Therapy an Historical Perspective. (Copyright Julian Holmes, 2006).
  9. Drinking cow’s blood was a treatment for tuberculosis. “Coupled with good food, sunshine and bed rest at first, then an exercise regime, the open-air cure was much more pleasant than other treatments of the day which included patent medicines containing arsenic or creosote and drinking fresh cow’s blood.” “Wayside Excursion: Tuberculosis and the Growth of Colorado,” Colorado Scenic and Historic Byways: Peak to Peak (Copyright Rocky Mountain Public Broadcasting Network, Inc., 2003)

 


TERRI SINNOTT, MA is a museum consultant with over 25 years experience in museum project management and exhibit development, in both non-profit and corporate museums, including Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, Motorola’s Museum of Electronics, and Motorola’s Beijing Gallery. Ms. Sinnott holds a bachelor of arts in history from the University of Notre Dame, and a master of arts in history museum studies from the Cooperstown Graduate Program/SUNY, and a master’s certificate in project management from George Washington University. She also developed and taught a museum management class as adjunct-faculty in the Public History Department at Loyola University.

Ms. Sinnott has just completed two manuscripts based on the historical editing of unpublished primary source material the first is based on Theresa Brouillette’s 103 letters written during her tuberculosis treatments—the second manuscript is based on the United States Civil War letters of Joshua A. Palmer, a soldier from her hometown of Washington, Indiana.

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