Pondering the legacy of a disease that killed so many…
One of the most serene places to walk in central Illinois also holds the stories, souls and prayers of lives who were affected by a disease known variously as “the great white plague,” “consumption” or “wasting disease.” This landscape near Forest Park Nature Center includes the beautiful brick building at 5823 North Forest Park Drive, now home to David Vaughan Investments Inc. Several other buildings and cottages were constructed among these acres of woods; they housed people who suffered from tuberculosis beginning in 1919, when the main building for the Peoria Municipal Tuberculosis Sanatorium was opened.
A Frequently Fatal Disease
Once thought to be genetic, tuberculosis (TB) has historically been a frequently fatal disease, snuffing out the lives of children and adults alike. If you walk into Springdale Cemetery, or St. Joseph’s or St. Mary’s in West Peoria, you can find stones listing the names of dozens of children who never reached adulthood because of TB, among other chronic diseases like diphtheria and cholera.
TB is extremely contagious—a bacterial disease that mainly affects the lungs, but can damage other parts of the body as well, including the spine, kidneys and brain. It was once one of the leading causes of death in the U.S., and is still common in many foreign countries. Those it afflicts suffer from a bad, bloody cough, night sweats, exhaustion, extreme weight loss and chest pain, and these symptoms can linger for years.
High death rates from TB in the 1800s and early 1900s are thought to have been an indirect result of the Industrial Revolution, which brought many people together to live and work in crowded and unsanitary places. Dr. Robert Koch, who discovered the bacterium that causes tuberculosis, and Dr. Edward Trudeau, who started the first TB sanatorium, were instrumental in urging constant rest, fresh air, sunlight and healthy food to treat patients.
Despite public understanding that the disease was caused by bacteria and spread through the air, TB remained incurable and highly contagious. Ultimately, sanatoriums were built around the country, and better hygiene practices began to prevent severe outbreaks. There were even anti-spitting laws passed to slow the spread of the disease in cities and factories, yet tens of thousands continued to die from TB despite these advances. In the meantime, many affected families had no way to pay for their care, which often led to destitution. There were not yet public welfare systems in place, nor were women typically allowed to work outside of the home, except in very specific circumstances.
At the Sanatorium
The legacy of tuberculosis in my own family is similar to the stories of thousands of other poor, hard-working folks. Two of my three great-grandparents from Ireland, Patrick Needham and Kate Nolan Waugh, succumbed to TB in Peoria between 1894 and 1900. They were both in their early forties and had compromised immune systems, having come from extreme poverty-stricken conditions. But my grandfather, who died just a few years before a cure was developed, is the one who spent several years at the Peoria Municipal Tuberculosis Sanatorium.
Born to William H. Crusen and Daisy Mae Carpenter Crusen in Cuba, Illinois in 1899, John Gilbert Crusen was the oldest of three children. He came to Peoria as a young boy, and by 1919, he was married to Vivian Greer Crusen, my grandmother. They had a son, John Crusen, Jr., who was stillborn and is buried in the old public lots at Springdale Cemetery, followed by three more sons in the 1920s: first Jim, followed by Bill, and then my dad, Don, in 1929. John became sick with tuberculosis in the early 1930s, changing the direction of this family forever. They were already poor, but his illness literally split the family apart.
By that time, the Peoria Municipal Tuberculosis Sanatorium was up and running, paid for with local tax dollars. Isolating the sick patients—as well as the family members exposed to them—was a pretty standard practice. John and Vivian, along with their three sons, were committed for treatment and to prevent further spread of the disease. Though the family’s treatment was covered, there was no income coming in.
Vivian grew stir-crazy and left the sanatorium against doctors’ wishes, beginning work at the Creve Coeur Club as a salad and pie maker. The older two boys, Jim and Bill, were sent to live on McClure with Grandma Daisy, leaving only John and little Don behind in the institution. According to my dad’s recollection, he was in the TB sanatorium for several years while John languished. And there was no subsidized daycare or welfare in place to help Vivian care for her children while she was working all the time.
I have several photographs of my Grandpa John with other patients at the sanatorium. They begin with him as a sturdy, handsome man, smiling with his friends, and end with him in a hospital bed, skin and bones, with all sorts of medical equipment around him, just a few months before his death on August 28, 1936. My dad only had one memory of Grandpa John from the sanatorium: that he was cranky.
But my grandpa’s death was the beginning of my dad’s freedom, and the turning point on a wild childhood. The only reason my dad, who was never sick, was left in the sanatorium was because no one was able to care full-time for a child his age. His brothers were approximately six and nine, school-aged, and perhaps easier to care for by Grandma Daisy. Vivian worked, and was unable to do so.
In adulthood, Jim, Bill and Don all served bravely in World War II. They married and had large families, but their childhood experiences definitely impacted who they were in the world. Vivian was sort of a hard woman, without a lot of sympathy for others. She eventually married Frank Mueller, a middle-class railroad man she met while working at the Creve Coeur Club. Frank paid for the headstone for my Grandpa John’s tomb at Parkview Cemetery; it says “Husband” on it. He was the only grandfather I ever knew, and he was truly beloved by all of the Crusen lineage. He softened Vivian quite a bit. When she was distressed, he would gently say, “Now Vivian…” and she would calm.
Spirits in the Forest
Around the time of Grandpa John’s death, significant improvements were being made in the fight against tuberculosis. In 1943, Dr. Selman Waksman discovered streptomycin and several other antibiotics that could cure the disease, transforming it from a death sentence to almost completely preventable—though it was seven years too late for my Grandpa John. A quick blood test was also developed, which helped significantly. By the 1950s, many of the TB sanatoriums began to close permanently, and as time passed, the disease was nearly eradicated in the U.S.
Still, tuberculosis remains a danger today. According to the CDC, one third of the world’s population is infected with latent TB, and in 2015, there were 1.8 million TB-related deaths worldwide—almost entirely outside of the U.S.
Here in Peoria, the brick building that was once part of the TB sanatorium is set in breathtaking surroundings. Hiking the trails nearby at Forest Park Nature Center, I feel a deep sense of spiritual connection to the grandfather I never knew. He was one among thousands who played cards there, who lay in beds there, who lived and died there. Walking amidst the trees, I see the sunbeams cascade through the tall branches of the forest surrounding his place of death. Viewing photographs of the children left there, I see them walking amidst the same trees: laughing, playing, praying, living and sometimes dying.
When I was a child, my dad would often drive with me in his work van, following the twisting turns of Forest Park Drive. He’d point at that brick building and say, “There, that is where I lived as a child. That is where my dad, who I didn’t even know, died.”
My dad was truly at peace—he loved birds and wildlife, trees and fishing. I am sure his childhood surroundings impacted this love. He married my mom, Joani Needham, in 1948, raised nine children on the West Bluff, and was the biggest influence in my life, sharing his love for wildlife with me and my siblings. He passed away in 2001, and I miss him daily. When I walk amidst the trees and see the birds, squirrels and deer near where he lived as a child, I breathe in the winds and ponder a disease that killed so many men… like my Grandpa John Gilbert Crusen, whose breath was taken away too soon. iBi