LOOMIS: The Man, The Sanitarium, and The Search for the Cure - Purple Mountain Press


by John Conway

From the Prologue:

In the summer of 1867, a young medical doctor who had been getting progressively sicker for several months arrived in the Adirondack Mountains, a remote, heavily forested region of upstate New York, and set up camp some forty miles from civilization.

The young man had recently been diagnosed with tuberculosis. It was a disease with which he was all too familiar. It had claimed the life of every member of his immediate family except one. In fact, the impact of the disease on his family was one of the reasons he had chosen to enter the medical profession in the first place. He had seen plenty of the symptomatic coughing and spitting in the hospitals on Wards and Blackwell’s Islands in New York City, where he had spent much of his professional life treating consumptives—the popular term at the time for those suffering from the disease.

Upon his own diagnosis, the young man had done what many doctors were then recommending patients of any means do. He traveled south to the Carolinas, with the hope that the climate there would alleviate his symptoms. As was the case, at least as often as not, the trip had not improved his condition, which, especially given his family history, he now considered critical.

He was not expecting the camping trip to induce a cure of any kind, but hoped it would serve as an opportunity to evaluate his options and plan his future direction. There was, after all, little about the Adirondack region to suggest it as a place to recover from disease. It was a wilderness, nearly inaccessible, thinly populated, and dotted with largely unexplored rivers and lakes. Although as early as 1841, Ebenezer Emmons had written that the region was “unrivaled for its magic and enchantment,” the young doctor’s visit took place a full two years before William H. H. Murray published his bestseller, Adventures in the Wilderness; or Camp Life in the Adirondacks, in which he noted, “no portion of our country surpasses, if indeed any equals, in health giving qualities, the Adirondack wilderness,” and tourism had been slow to develop.

Here, amid the seclusion of the sentinel pines and other fragrant evergreens, he pitched his tent, a sturdy canvas structure, twelve feet square, that would serve as his home for the next few months. At first, he had little energy for much more than a leisurely walk among the ferns and partridge-grass, but before long he found he could explore the bluffs and coves, as well as fish and boat on the nearby lake. By the time the summer had passed, the young man had made a perceptible recovery. He had gained twenty pounds, was free from the cough that had persisted for months, and had greater physical vigor than he had known in years. At death’s door upon his arrival, he lived an active life for nearly thirty more years.

The young physician was Dr. Alfred Lebbeus Loomis, and that fateful summer sojourn to the Adirondacks made him a great champion of the health-giving properties of the area.

More than a decade later, he wrote, “My personal experience that summer convinced me that there was something in the air of this region especially adapted to diseased lungs . . . that if the climate had no direct influence in arresting or preventing phthisical developments, it certainly allayed bronchial irritation, and the phthisical invalid soon became able to spend the greater portion of his time in the open air; still more, his surroundings were such that if a lover of nature or of sport, he necessarily forgot himself, and thus was nature aided, and vigor and health restored.”

The fact that Dr. Loomis went on to become one of the most famous physicians of his day lent more than a little weight to his opinion that the Adirondack region was a natural sanitarium. Loomis persuaded many patients to spend not just the summer months in the mountains, but the winter too. In 1878, fourteen of his patients spent the winter in the area. Most of them showed almost immediate improvement.

“From time to time, since that summer eleven years ago, I have sent phthisical invalids into this region,” Loomis wrote. “At first, I sent them only during the summer months, but I found that while temporary relief was afforded, and in some cases marked improvement took place, in cases of fully developed phthisis the latter was not permanent, and although the winter months might be spent at the south, yet before another summer came around the disease progressed. Not until 1873 was I able to persuade any phthisical invalid to remain during the winter. The effect of the winter climate on this invalid showed so markedly the benefit to be derived from a winter’s residence in this region that from that time, each winter, others have been induced to remain.”

The treatment protocol for tuberculosis in the United States would never be the same.

After curing himself and a younger colleague, Edward Livingston Trudeau, of tuberculosis and promoting the cure successfully at their sanitarium in Tupper Lake in the Adirondacks, Dr. Loomis wanted another facility closer to New York City and its many poor who suffered. He chose Liberty in Sullivan County where thousands were treated over the decades before the introduction of antibiotics. The sanitarium's remaining buildings are the county's greatest architectural treasure.

John Conway serves as Sullivan County County Historian. His columns on local history were published by the Times Herald-Record for many years. Purple Mountain Press has published his Retrospect: An Anecdotal History of Sullivan County and Dutch Schultz and His Lost Catskills' Treasure.

119 pages, illustrated, 7 x 10, 2006
$15.00 paperback--A Purple Mountain Press original

Copyright © 2006 Purple Mountain Press. All rights reserved.