It’s fitting that a building erected to help tuberculosis patients in the early 20th century should house the current Dane County Department of Human Services, whose mission, among others, is to provide effective services that support well-being and community safety.
Tuberculosis is a chronic bacterial disease affecting the respiratory system. Though it has stricken people for thousands of years, tuberculosis went on a rampage in the 19th century as the white plague. It claimed more lives than any other disease in the United States and, at the turn of the 20th century, was the leading cause of death in Wisconsin, killing 2,500 people annually.
Known as consumption because people were consumed by the disease, tuberculosis was also called the wasting disease. Poor living conditions (especially in urban slums), harsh weather, and lack of sunlight contributed to the spread of tuberculosis, and occupations involving heavy labor or dusty conditions had the highest incidence. Questionable early treatments included electric shock and tapeworms.
Hermann Brehmer, a German doctor, was diagnosed with tuberculosis when he was a botany student. His doctor advised healthier living, so Brehmer traveled to the Himalayans, where he could continue his studies and try to heal. He recovered and, in 1854, opened a tuberculosis sanatorium in Germany. There, patients were isolated and exposed to ample amounts of fresh air and good nutrition. The first sanatorium in the United States, the Adirondack College Sanitarium in Saranac Lake, New York, was established by Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau in the 1880s.
Although deaths from tuberculosis began to decline in the latter part of the 19th century, there were only a few professional and governmental organizations that were specifically dealing with the disease. The forerunner of today’s American Lung Association began in 1904 as the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis. The American Sanatorium Association was also founded at the same time with only 106 sanatoriums in the United States providing 9,107 beds for tuberculosis patients. During the peak year of 1954, there were 108,457 beds allocated to the disease.
In 1903, a Wisconsin act was passed authorizing the governor to appoint three commissioners to investigate tuberculosis and to report on the feasibility of a state sanatorium. As a result of the study, the state sanatorium Statesan was opened in 1907 near Wales in Waukesha County. There were only three state sanatoriums in existence, and none were in the Midwest. Statesan was supported and used for tuberculosis patients until 1957. In 1959, the sanatorium was converted to the Ethan Allen School for Boys correctional facility for juveniles, which closed in 2011.
By 1930, many county sanatoriums were built in Wisconsin, along with several private ones. Dane County had one of the first private sanatoriums—Morningside Sanitarium—which was built in 1918, and is now known as the Tellurian Community.
Dane County was slow to construct its own public sanatorium, feeling that the needs were being met by Morningside. However, by the late 1920s, it became clear that it was not fiscally responsible for the county to be sending its tuberculosis patients to other sanatoriums around the state because of its obligation to pay for those patients to reside there. A 1928 study was conducted to determine how many people in Dane County were afflicted by tuberculosis. The results showed that a county sanatorium could be built for a cost of $18 per week per patient rather than the $25 to $30 per week that Morningside and other sanatoriums were charging. Also, a single-unit sanatorium, rather than the cottage style of Morningside, was preferred.
A site, now 1204 Northport Drive, was chosen for Dane County’s Lake View Sanatorium. The location was high on a hill to receive the fresh Lake Mendota breeze, and was central in the county—close to Madison, where an ample workforce could be found. The facility was ready for occupancy by June 1930.
The four-story former sanatorium is rectilinear with a raised basement. For the most part a utilitarian building, it has some subtle Art Deco influences seen in the columns in the front. The exterior walls are red brick with concrete trim, and the first three floors have enclosed porches.
The Lake View Sanatorium was listed on both the State and National Register of Historic Places in 1993. According to the National Register nomination. “Its distinctive design characteristics such as: the isolated, hill-top location; landscaped grounds with paths so patients could walk and exercise; ‘germ traps’ [small areas outside patient rooms where medical staff could change into and out of sterilized hospital gowns before and after seeing patients]; and porches for patients to take full advantage of the fresh air, are all typical of the medical establishment’s view of the appropriate method of treatment before the discovery and wide use of [penicillin] to cure the disease.”
Lake View Sanatorium was the last county tuberculosis sanatorium built in Wisconsin and had the advantage of learning from earlier facilities. Its administration felt it was the most advanced in the state. From the National Register nomination, “Dane County gave its citizens what it believed was the most technically and socially advanced treatment, as manifested in the design of the Lake View Sanatorium complex.”
A strong and active community clinic and outreach department were also part of the sanatorium’s services. Thousands of x-rays to screen county residents were taken. Home healthcare programs for those not sick enough for the sanatorium or for those who could not be admitted because of lack of beds were administered. This was a unique aspect of Lake View Sanatorium—a sanatorium exceptional in its proactive stance toward tuberculosis with a strong emphasis on early detection and treatment. Lake View operated until 1966.
“It’s one of the most beautiful sites on the north side of Madison. My father, Wilbert Steimel, spent a year there in 1963-64. He and another man shared a corner room and loved watching and feeding small tree squirrels from their room. The view was so nice and peaceful, a good place to rest and get tuberculosis to become inactive,” says Mary Ace of McFarland.
Today, the occurrence of tuberculosis is less than .84 cases per 100,000 people in Wisconsin, or 49 total in 2018. According to statistics from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, seven of those cases were in Dane County. With a timely diagnosis and treatment with first-line antibiotics for six months, the World Health Organization says most people who develop tuberculosis can be cured and onward transmission of infection curtailed. Lake View Sanatorium stands as testament to the work of its administrators a lifetime ago.
Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.