When Verona Cured Tuberculosis

By on August 13, 2013

Hilltop-Sanatorium1Now, a respiratory illness is no big deal for most of us. A trip to the doctor, a prescription for antibiotics and we’re quickly on the mend. But that wasn’t the case a hundred years ago, when crowded, unsanitary cities made tuberculosis common. In an era before antibiotics, there was really only one cure: Spending time in fresh mountain air, like the air to be found at the Essex Mountain Sanatorium on Verona’s Hilltop.

The facility opened in November 1907 in a building that had been part of the orphanage that once stood on the grounds. But opposition to its use as a TB hospital was so great in the then new town of Verona that the first patients were snuck in at night. As the toll of tuberculosis climbed–there were more than 1,000 deaths a year from the disease in our area–the sanatorium expanded to 20 buildings across nearly 300 acres on Verona’s western ridge, serving 700 patients. It became a completely self-contained entity, with a farm to feed the patients and workers, who also lived there. It had an auditorium for movies and social events, a general store, a newspaper and tutors for child and adult patients.

By the time Rich Kennedy found it in 1987, the sanatorium was a shell of its former self, literally. Modern medicine had made the complex obsolete and vandals had done the rest after the last patients were moved out in 1970. Now the amateur historian has returned the sanatorium to its rightful place in the history of Verona–and medicine–with the publication of Essex Mountain Sanatorium.

“It was a big spooky place,” recalls Kennedy of his first encounter. “It seemed like a post-apocalyptic world there, this world that was just forgotten. It was just fascinating as a teenager.” He estimates that he went up to the Hilltop hundreds of times after that, and tried to collect every scrap of information on the site.

The sanatorium was a self-contained world, complete with a farm to feed the many patients who came to its dining hall.

The sanatorium was a self-contained world, complete with a farm to feed the many patients who came to its dining hall.

“This was before the Internet, before information was so readily available,” Kennedy says. “If you asked local people, they’d say it was the loony bin. All you really knew were the myths.” (For the record, the Overbrook asylum–Essex County’s mental hospital–was the buildings to the north of Verona Pool.) Fittingly enough, Kennedy began to capture some of what he learned about the sanatorium on a Web site, which is how Arcadia Publishing found him and enticed him to write a book.

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“When I was approached by Arcadia, I thought there is no way I can fill a book,” says Kennedy. “Once I started digging deeper it became just the opposite: How am I going to fit it all?”

The photo and fact-packed book takes readers from the Dickensian orphanage that became the sanatorium’s first home through a detailed look at how TB was treated. Because of the belief in the healing powers of fresh air, patients–even those on complete bed rest, pictured above–lived with windows open all year round. Some patients had a lung collapsed to facilitate a cure, sometimes after ribs were removed, an operation that could lead to scoliosis. Doctors also crushed patients’ phrenic nerve, which would paralyze a lung for up to six months. But there was danger for doctors, too: The sanatorium had X-ray machines, but the rudimentary devices had no shields, exposing medical personnel to large doses of radiation.

“I came away from the book feeling fortunate that I live in this era of medicine and technology,” says Kennedy, whose grandmother was treated for TB in upstate New York. “There were some primitive and barbaric treatments for tuberculosis.”

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The irony perhaps is that, while Essex County began to raze the Hilltop buildings in 1993, the sanatorium could well have had a use in TB treatment now. As Kennedy notes in the book, the World Health organization declared TB a global health emergency in 1993 and by 2010, there were 8.8 million TB cases and 1.5 million deaths worldwide. Some patients have developed resistance to all the drugs that put the sanatorium out of business.

Kennedy will do a presentation and book signing on Tuesday, September 3, at the Verona Community Center; he will also be at Watchung Booksellers in Montclair on September 21. He also has set up a Facebook page so readers can share their memories of the sanatorium. “It was important to be to be as historically accurate as I could,” says Kennedy. “A lot of people in Verona know nothing of what happened there.”

Images reprinted with permission from “Essex Mountain Sanatorium”, by Richard A. Kennedy. Available from the publisher, Arcadia Publishing online at www.arcadiapublishing.com or by calling 888-313-2665. You can also buy it through Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble

The main hospital building of the Essex Mountain Sanatorium in its heyday.

The main hospital building of the Essex Mountain Sanatorium in its heyday.

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