Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium: A Patient’s Story

I, for one, have never in my life come across a perfectly healthy human being.

— The Magic Mountain (1924),  Thomas Mann

Just when I think I’m done writing about the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium, more compelling information comes my way. Here’s a patient’s account of her two years at the sanitarium. It tells of a bright moment when state, county and city provided effective public health care to those in need.

In January 1964, fifteen-year-old Kathleen Felters from Chicago’s Lawndale neighborhood on the West Side was admitted to the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium at 5601 N. Pulaski on Chicago’s Far North Side.  She was transferred to the sanitarium by bus from Cook County Hospital, accompanied by a nurse.

At the time Kathleen weighed 97 pounds and had just undergone a pulmonary lobectomy, which in her case meant the right lower lobe of her lung was removed. She had had TB for six months before she was taken to Cook County.

Kathleen wasn’t the first in her family to reside at the sanitarium. In all, at least ten members of her family suffered from TB. From the 1940s to the 1960s six were admitted: her father, who died of TB at the sanitarium in March 1957; her grandfather; her uncle’s wife; two  of her uncle’s siblings; and her uncle’s niece, who died as an infant from TB.

Kathleen spent the first seven months in the infirmary fighting for her life. Once her condition improved, she moved into a transition area called the sun porches. At the time doctors believed fresh air and sunshine aided recovery.

Later, Kathleen moved into a cottage and her life took on the ordinary routine of a teenager, except she was confined to the sanitarium. She attended school, made friends, had fun. Teachers came into the sanitarium and taught a regular school curriculum.

Kathleen formed a friendship with a woman who became godmother to her firstborn. She recalls with pleasure the movie theater and entertainment featuring well-known performers like Ramsey Lewis. There was a church and arts and craft classes for the adults. Once she no longer tested positive for TB, she could have visitors and weekend home visits.

The doctors educated patients about TB. Kathleen recalls learning not to compare her condition to other patients because each person was different.  She also learned about the origins of the disease and how it spread.

TBposter

1938 Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium poster

“At that time, a lot of people didn’t understand TB.  They believed it came from a lack of cleanliness.  I was educated about my condition from the beginning until I was discharged from MTS.  When I left, I continued to be monitored by Dr. Haus, one of the doctors I adored. He saw me through my first pregnancy,” said Kathleen.

tbposter

I asked Kathleen whether she had the opportunity to enjoy the grounds. “Yes,” she replied, “it was beautiful. There were rabbits and geese and we thought it was like a college campus.”

“Even though I was admitted to MTS because of TB,  it was one most profound and wonderful experiences that I’ve had in my life,” Kathleen added. She would love to hear from former acquaintances at the sanitarium.

My thanks to Kathleen Felters-Brials for sharing her story.

Credits:  WPA posters, Library of Congress Online Catalog.

Read more: A companion piece to this story is an essay by Gilberto Gonzalez, M.D., who was a medical resident at the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium. These blog posts also are about the sanitarium: Forbidden Places I, Forbidden Places II, Forbidden Places III and Forbidden Places, Epilogue.

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30 Responses to Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium: A Patient’s Story

  1. Sheila Linderman April 19, 2010 at 9:26 am #

    Frances, this is a fabulous post! Kathleen must be an amazing person! I am also crazy about the posters.
    Sheila

  2. frances728 April 19, 2010 at 10:52 am #

    Thanks, Sheila. WPA art is wonderful, isn’t it?

  3. Judi VanMeerten April 19, 2010 at 10:35 pm #

    Thank you for this wonderful story. I enjoy anything written about the sanitarium. I couldn’t believe she said that 10 people in her family had TB. We can be thankful that only our father had TB. The posters were wonderful.
    Judi

  4. jennifer April 20, 2010 at 7:54 am #

    Frances, this is turning into an amazing documentation of a place that was such a presence, yet such a mystery to so many of us on the outside. Fascinating.

  5. frances728 April 20, 2010 at 8:56 am #

    Thanks, Jennifer. You know, the Bohemian Cemetery is right across the street and we’ll be learning about that place’s history soon. Looking forward to seeing you.

  6. Jo Holzer April 20, 2010 at 1:52 pm #

    I am always interested in anecdotes about TB. My father’s first wife had TB and committed suicide in the 1920’s when there was no cure. If not for TB, I would not be here!! Sad but true. Her daughter died at the age of 93, in 2003.

  7. frances728 April 20, 2010 at 2:13 pm #

    Years ago stories like yours must have been more common. Today in the U.S. it’s sometimes hard to imagine the extent to which so many lives were impacted by diseases. My grandmother, for example, died from influenza.

  8. Hixx April 21, 2010 at 5:18 pm #

    This is fascinating! the posters just can really take you back. I can’t believe that this time is even a part of “recent’ history.

  9. Tracy April 21, 2010 at 7:51 pm #

    Kathleen is truely an amazing person, I should know she is my mom. She experienced and expressed to us so many wonderful stories while she was at the sanitarium. I am so very proud of you and much love to you, your eldest daughter (Tracy).

  10. pauline starck May 25, 2010 at 1:25 pm #

    I lived in North Park as a child and I vividly recall this sanitarium that was within “biking distance” from my home. Now all these years later I have a friend whose father, Dr.Imas Rice, was superintendent of a TB sanitarium in Aurora IL. He thinks that his father first served in Chicago where he met his mother who was a nurse there. We would like to find out if this was the sanitarium where Dr. Rice was a doctor many, many years ago. Is there any way to find this info? Would really appreciate any clues! Polly Snyder Starck

  11. Frances May 25, 2010 at 1:37 pm #

    Polly, thanks for visiting. I think it might be difficult to get any information from the the Chicago Dept. of Health but that might be a first stop as they were the governing body. Also your friend might try using Google to research Dr. Rice. If his name appeared on a city document that has been digitized, than it might come up on a search.

  12. Nettie Francis May 25, 2010 at 8:32 pm #

    We recently learned that our uncle, John Joseph Hubbard, either worked or more likely was a patient at the Chicago Municipal Sanitarium in 1968-69. He passed away in Chicago in 1973. We want to learn more about what happened to him during his years there. We would like to know if there is anyone who might have known him during these years or if there is a way to learn more through any records of the sanitarium that might be available.

  13. Frances May 25, 2010 at 9:12 pm #

    Thank you for visiting. I hope someone who reads this blog might recognize your uncle’s name. We have a number of people who worked at the Sanitarium commenting here. Good luck!

  14. stephanie January 8, 2011 at 10:27 pm #

    i enjoyed reading this story. thank you
    my grandmother actually went to this sanitarium for 1 year she attended it from 1961-1962
    she survived and is still telling her stories about this sanitarium

  15. Frances Archer January 8, 2011 at 11:14 pm #

    I appreciate your stopping by and leaving a comment. That’s fascinating that your grandmother still recalls her experience. I’d be interested in hearing some of those stories.

  16. gilberto gonzalez,MD January 13, 2011 at 5:56 pm #

    Stephanie, you must record your grandmother’s stories about the MTS. If you do not do that, part of history will die with the passing of her generation. We must not allow that.
    G. Gonzalez, MD

  17. Frances Archer January 13, 2011 at 6:48 pm #

    I agree with Dr.Gonzalez. Perhaps I can interview Stephanie’s grandmother for this blog.

  18. Shirley Dunbar February 23, 2011 at 11:57 am #

    Does anyone know of a TB Sanitarium in Chicago dating back to 1913?

  19. Georgia knoblock May 6, 2013 at 8:11 am #

    I was there from 1956-1958 at the time I was the youngest patient I had 3 family members who had tb only my mother went there after me. It was a wonderful if sometimes scary time for a 13 year old away from her family.

  20. Frances Archer May 6, 2013 at 9:42 pm #

    Georgia, Thanks for taking time to contact me and let me know of your stay at MTS. Two years was a long time! Would love to hear more about what you remember, and I will send you an email.

  21. Susan Groves May 7, 2013 at 9:32 pm #

    My father who is 78 has told me stories of his father being a patient at MTS. His fathers name was Frederick Schnell and was a brass worker who worked on Buckingham Fountian when he contacted TB. He passed away in the early 1940’s and is buried in Edens Cemetery in Schiller Park, Illinois. I have found his grave but don’t know much else. My dad doesn’t talk about him for he was a young teen when he passed away. How do I get any info on my grandfather? I am trying to get my family tree in order for my nephews. His wifes (my grandma) name was Helen Schnell. They had 3 sons…Fred, Richard and Robert. I know my grandfather was quite young when he passed away. I was wondering if there are any records of the MTS that are available to the relatives or the public. If anyone can help my search, thank you. Susan Schnell Groves
    Sad that I never got to meet him…I am even searching for newspaper articles.

  22. Frances Archer May 8, 2013 at 10:32 pm #

    Hi, Susan. Thanks for writing. Interesting story about your grandfather. Unfortunately, I don’t know where the medical records were stored, or even if they were kept.

  23. Susan Groves May 9, 2013 at 6:33 pm #

    Thank you Frances for your reply…if I find anything further I will be happy to share it with you and others. Please keep me posted on any future walks….from what I remember years ago they would have a Halloween walk at night on the grounds….that was years ago and it was very eerie….many thanks for your work and pics you have provided…Susan

  24. yvonne Hogan October 23, 2013 at 7:53 am #

    I worked at the TB San. from 1968 – 1970.

    One of the last patient’s there died prior to it being closed

  25. Frances Archer October 23, 2013 at 2:32 pm #

    Yvonne, thanks for stopping by. I’ll send you a direct email about your recollections of the last years of the San.

  26. Dan Bulley October 18, 2014 at 9:13 pm #

    Pauline Starck, your comment is several years old not sure if you are still monitoring this but my Grandfather replaced Dr. Rice as superintendent at the Aurora TB San in 1936. I have some newspaper articles that may have more info on Dr Rice.

  27. Kathleen Felters August 13, 2015 at 8:08 am #

    Hi Francis I wish I would have known about the tour you guys had of the TB sanitarium. I would have loved walking through my memories again.

    Today I have retired I had that wish on my bucket list, is there anyway I could have a chance to visit my memories ?

    Thank you very much for your assistance.

  28. Frances Archer August 17, 2015 at 12:37 pm #

    Kathleen, I wish you had been there too! I will email you separately and see if we can arrange to meet sometime this fall while the weather is mild.

  29. Jennifer December 3, 2016 at 8:14 pm #

    Hi,

    Can you please tell me if this is the same as Winfield Tuberculosis Sanatorium?

  30. Frances Archer December 10, 2016 at 11:59 am #

    Hi, Jennifer. No this was at a different location

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