Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Sanitariums as cure for consumption

Battle Creek Sanitarium before the fire of 1902. Willard Library Collection. Via Wikimedia.

The institutions variously called sanitariums (from sanare, “to cure”) or sanitariums (from sanitas, meaning “health”) became all the rage around 1850. They were especially popular with the upper classes, as exemplified in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain by the young Hans Castorp, who decides to spend a few days with a friend at a Swiss sanitarium and ends up staying there for seven years. There was at the time no effective treatment for the ravages caused by “the captain of the men of death” as it spread its wings among young and old, dramatized in books, novels, and opera. Accordingly, confinement in a sanitarium, as first recommended by George Bodington in 1840, seemed a reasonable approach. It was reinforced by the experience of the German doctor Hermann Brehmer, who attributed his recovery from tuberculosis to a prolonged stay at high altitudes in the Himalayas. He established an institute in the mountains of Silesia, where he personally supervised a regimen of mountain air, exercise, exposure to arctic cold conditions, plenty of food, strong Hungarian wine, and cognac.

Soon sanitariums sprouted up all over the world. There were famous ones in the Alps, at Engadine and Davos in Switzerland, in Scandinavia, in Asheville in North Carolina, in Arizona, in Oregon, and in the Adirondack mountains at Saranac Lake. Their regiments were based on much rest, in bed or in specially designed recliners, often combined with vigorous exercise in the cold, aided by good food and plenty of it, and sometimes by weekly movies to dispel the ennui. Some patients’ lungs were further rested by insufflating air into the pleural or peritoneal cavities (pneumothorax or pneumoperitoneum).

Sanitaria went out of business after 1942 following the discovery of streptomycin, isoniazid, and the much-hated PAS that even nurses would throw away in the hospital parking lot. Some sanitariums became regular hospitals, others mental hospitals or leprosariums. They illustrate a period in humanity’s fight against infectious diseases characterized by grasping at straws unsupported by verifiable scientific evidence.



GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief


Summer 2023  |  Sections  |  Infectious Diseases

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