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U.S. Territorial Health Care, 1846-1912
U.S. Territorial Health Care, 1846-1912

When the U.S. Army established a supply depot in Albuquerque, it also had a hospital, the town’s first. In 1846 there was one trained physician. In the mid-1850s the territory had a surgeon, Cameron de Leon, who left during the Civil War and returned later, practicing here nine years.

After the Civil War, more easterners began to appear in Albuquerque; among them were a few doctors. More typical, however, were practitioners like former soldier William Brown, who opened an office near the center of the plaza. Brown declared himself a barber, dentist and chiropodist.

By the 1880s Albuquerque had at least two doctors, and Sister Blandina Segale opened a hospital of sorts to serve the poor. When the railroad reached Albuquerque in 1880, it created a need for treatment of injured railroad workers. In 1881 the railroad built a small hospital east of the tracks for 20 patients. The hospital burned in 1902 and patients were transferred to the St. Joseph Sanitorium. A new hospital was completed with beds for 30 patients.

In 1883 a women’s group established the Cottage Home in a small, donated adobe house. There was also a “pest house” to quarantine smallpox victims in the sand hills south of Fairview Cemetery.

In the early 1890s Albuquerque’s Commercial Club, a forerunner of the chamber of commerce, began to promote Albuquerque to easterners suffering from tuberculosis, or “consumption.”

By the early 1900s New Mexico’s sunshine, dry air, high altitude and warm climate were attracting health seekers, particularly TB patients who were “chasing the cure.” That disease by 1909 had become the nation’s leading cause of death. Albuquerque boosters took advantage of the situation to promote the town as the health-seeker’s haven. By 1910, tuberculars, or “lungers,” as they were called, numbered 3,000 out of a population of 13,000. Many had arrived on stretchers.

For a long time citizens didn’t understand that TB was communicable. The sick mingled freely with the well, and wealthy lungers hired locals to work for them. As a result, the disease spread into the local population, with tragic results.

Seeing a need for better facilities, churches established facilities. The first was St. Joseph Sanitorium, opened by the Sisters of Charity in 1902. The three-story brick building held patient rooms, a kitchen, a surgical ward and nursing stations. The Sisters’ mission was to treat the poor and underserved, and they were particularly concerned about TB patients. It was the city’s first hospital to serve the community. By 1912 the facility had added a surgical wing, laundry, power plant, nurses’ dormitory and 17 patient cottages.

In 1903 Rev. Hugh A. Cooper, a Presbyterian minister, came to Albuquerque to improve his health and became pastor of the First Presbyterian Church. Concerned with the large number of TB patients in the city, many destitute and dying, he decided that Presbyterians must lend a hand. In 1908 founded the Southwestern Presbyterian Sanitorium, with support from the Commercial Club. The facility was a five-room house on Oak Street, one of the few homes on the dirt road to the university. It was the city’s second such sanitorium. Patients paid $40 a month for care, room and board.

Soon the town had eight sanitoria, mostly clustered between downtown and the university. There were also convalescent homes. The less fortunate stayed in tent houses. As facilities increased, they drew pulmonary specialists as well as quacks. One treatment was “heliography,” or sitting in the sun.

By 1911 Albuquerque had 25 physicians serving the city’s 20,000 residents. That year Dr. Evelyn Fisher Frisbie became the first woman to open a practice. Five years later her male peers elected her president of the state’s medical society. She practiced for 54 years.

The Episcopal Church started St. John’s Sanitorium in 1912. The same year the Methodist Sanatorium opened on Railroad (now Central) Ave. The East Mesa drew such a concentration of “sans” and TB cottages that for a time the street was dubbed “TB Avenue” or “San Alley.”

These patients provided a significant economic boost to Albuquerque, and they also became some of the city’s prominent city leaders and outstanding citizens. Recovered patients who stayed included Carrie Wooster, whose then suitor Clyde Tingley, would become the city’s flamboyant mayor and New Mexico governor; John Milne, who was APS school superintendent for 45 years; Clinton Anderson, who was a notable U.S. Senator and member of Truman’s cabinet; France Scholes, vice president of UNM; Grace Thompson Edmister, who founded and conducted the Albuquerque Civic Symphony; architect John Gaw Meem; and William R. Lovelace, who founded Lovelace Clinic. Although John Gaw Meem was a Santa Fe resident because of his tuberculosis treatment at Sunmount Sanitarium, he greatly influenced the architectural landscape of the city with his designs of many UNM buildings, the Albuquerque Little Theatre, Immanuel Presbyterian Church and other structures.

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