Premiering tonight on PBS is American Experience: The Forgotten Plague looking at the history of tuberculosis. In this exclusive clip on Untapped Cities, vintage imagery shows how Bellevue Hospital in New York City transformed ferry barges into floating wards in its attempt to combat the disease and the sheer number of patients. Writer Andrea Barrett who is interviewed in the documentary refers to them as “day camps,” where tuberculosis stricken children would be taken.
The hospitals and barges were not intended for the dying, but rather targeted for those in the early stages of the disease. As such, the afflicted poor would change their names and try different hospitals to get the care they needed after being turned down.
During most of the 19th century, it was believed that tuberculosis, also referred to as consumption, was genetic. It was believed that fresh air, or the “climate cure” could be palliative. This theory has seen application in the architecture of hospitals, like this now-abandoned facility south of Buffalo, or on the outdoor balconies at Bellevue Hospital. It also impacted migration patterns in the United States, with thousands of people moving out West.
It wasn’t until 1892 that the disease was determined to be contagious, when tuberculosis bacillus was discovered, but it would take another decade to convince the medical community. Then would come the isolation policy, moving patients to sanatoriums on the edges of the city like the now-abandoned North Brother Island.
The documentary explores many interesting ways the disease affected life and society–women’s hemlines went up to avoid contact, men started to shave their heads. Questions arose, still debated today, about the balance between public health and the rights of the diseased.
See more tonight on PBS at 9pm.