Helping to cure the sick in New Mexico

-A A +A
By Special to the Monitor

Many people know the concept of the healing nature of the Southwest’s dry, sunny climate, but few perhaps recognize that so many immigrants to the region came because of lung ailments or that the treatment of tuberculosis subsequently became a major industry.

A new, temporary exhibit that examines these themes is on display during the month of December at the Los Alamos Historical Museum.

“This fascinating exhibit titled, ‘Search for a Cure: Life at Valmora” came to us through the generosity of the UNM Health Sciences Center which developed the display,” said Museum Director Hedy Dunn. “Last February, I saw an article with photographs of what, in some cases, looked like archaic means of dealing with an old disease and I became fascinated. I also knew that the exhibit would hold special meaning for Los Alamos for at least two reasons. First, the photos of the TB Sanitorium in Valmora includes a photograph of the house in which Peggy Pond Church was born. Peggy’s father, Ashley Pond, founded the Los Alamos Ranch school which, initially at least, attracted frail boys who came to Los Alamos seeking to become robust and healthy.”

The exhibit features the story of how, between the late 1800s and the early 1940s New Mexico, like neighboring Colorado, became a haven for respiratory patients who were treated in more than 40 sanitoria, with at least six being located in Santa Fe.

“There was probably nothing magical in the air, food or water here, but it probably wasn’t a bad idea to place fragile patients in a warm, clean climate away from the overcrowded, industrially-polluted cities of the upper Midwest,” Dunn said.

“I was fascinated to learn how many of the state’s influential pioneers such as Clyde Tingley, John Gaw Meem, Clinton P. Anderson, and William Lovelace came because they were suffering from TB,” Dunn added. “By 1912, ‘lungers,’ (a nickname for these patients) and their families constituted as many as a third of the population of Albuquerque. In fact, a quote from an early promotional brochure proclaimed, ‘Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the sick get well and the well get prosperous.’”

“I know one of the exhibit’s curators, Dr. Jake Spidle, a faculty member at UNM. He had previously given two lectures for our Historical Society on the subject of the TB Industry in New Mexico,” Dunn said. “He explained that even the founder of the sanitorium in Valmora, William T. Brown, came from Illinois to battle the disease. Likewise, a young medical student, Carl H. Gullenthien, came to Valmora to treat his illness and stayed on to practice medicine there for over half a century. The section of the exhibit on the “doctors of Valmora” has photos and stories about both of these individuals.”

The exhibit also contains artifacts from the history of the TB “search for a cure” such as a doctor’s head mirror, a folding paper cup for patients to collect samples, a scale for measuring medications, various kinds of breathing devices and old promotional brochures from the Valmora Sanitorium in the 1930s. The photos of patients “taking the cure” as well as the cottage facilities for long-term patients fill other sections on “patients and facilities.”

While tuberculosis has not been eradicated and still remains a serious illness in some developing countries, it is not the “captain of death” it once was. Thanks to the development and expanded use of modern antibiotics in the 1940s, the disease came under control and the state finally saw the demise of the TB industry.

The exhibit on the Valmora Sanitorium will remain at the Los Alamos Historical Museum for the entire month of December. The Historical Museum, open daily free of charge, is located just north of Fuller Lodge off Central Avenue in Los Alamos. For more information, call the museum at 662-6272 or 662-4493.