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The White Plague in the City of Angels

Caroline Luce, Author

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The Sanatorium Becomes the City of Hope

“There are many of our friends, who believe the sanatorium can be something like a camp, having a few canvas tents. This we wish to say, that our little institution is practically a little township, a little city for itself; many of the patients love to call it, "THE TOWN OF HOPE” – B’nai B’rith Messenger, Oct. 22, 1915
From a small collection of temporary shelters in 1914, the JCRA Sanatorium quickly grew into a large-scale campus. By the 1920s, the facilities included over thirty buildings with space to house over 120 patients. They had erected a series of “cure cottages” like those at Dr. Trudeau’s sanatorium in Saranac Lake. Two of the original buildings were financed by local branches of the Arbeter Ring (Workmen's Circle) - Branch 248, the city’s first branch, and Branch no. 443, founded by former members of Poalei Tsion. Several other cottages were funded through donations from local unions, including the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and the Bakery and Confectionery Workers Union (B&C) and built with labor donated by the local Jewish Painters’ and Carpenters’ Unions. The JCRA established offices in New York, Chicago, Boston and San Francisco, and Women’s Auxiliaries in Oakland, San Jose, San Diego, Salt Lake City, Fresno, Cleveland, Youngstown, PA. Funds raised by the Cleveland Auxiliary were used to build a large hospital building on the site, while the Bay Cities Auxiliary paid for a large recreation hall, and branches in Chicago and San Diego funded cottages. [31]  The JCRA also operated a library named in honor of Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, who himself died of tuberculosis in 1916. The sanatorium was, as its patients described, more like a small town than a collection of tents, earning it the name “the City of Hope.”

In the 1920s, the JCRA Sanatorium employed three full time physicians - Dr. Karl Fischel, the medical director, and Drs. Bella Carr and M. Paretzky, both of whom lived alongside their patients on the campus – and at least eleven other local physicians offered the services as voluntary consultants.  Dr. Fischel, who had worked at sanatoriums in Vienna, San Francisco and Davos, Switzerland, helped to make the sanatorium a “most modern” institution. Dr. Fischel helped to encourage the Warner family, including film moguls Jack and Harry, to fund a new medical building, complete with an X-ray department and a “first-class” laboratory, as well as an aseptic surgical room and a “pheumothorax apparatus,” an artificial lung device used when patients’ infected lungs were collapsed or removed to prevent the spread of the disease.  He introduced new surgical procedures at the facility - including phrenicotomy and thoracoplasty - and published several articles on treating the disease. He also expanded the infirmary because of the “extremely high” number of advanced cases he encountered, and encouraged the occupational therapy program to help with the patients’ “mental hygiene” and to “make [them] self-supporting.” At the sanatorium, the patients were given "the best scientific treatment that medical knowledge of tuberculosis provides." [32] 

Dr. H. I. Leviton, the secretary of the sanatorium’s Medical Advisory Board, proudly boasted that JCRA patients included both Jews and Gentiles, “from sixty cities, sixty-eight industries, and forty-two organizations.” In the fiscal year of 1922-1923, the sanatorium served 273 patients, 215 of whom were male and 58 of whom were female. The patients were carpenters, furniture makers, bakers, junk dealers, and workers in the needle trades (including furriers, dressmakers, tailors), as well as a considerable number of female “housewives.” More than a third maintained ties to an organizations that had helped to raise funds for JCRA, including members of the Arbeter Ring (Workman’s Circle) and other Jewish fraternal organizations, as well as over twenty-six different unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor.   Many patients were of Eastern European Jewish origins – hailing from Russia, Poland, Romania, and Hungary – while others were born in Canada, Serbia, Turkey, England and the United States. These patients stayed at the sanatorium for an average of 187 days and, as Dr. Leviton noted, over 100 of their patients that year had been discharged because their disease had been arrested or improved. Unfortunately, an additional forty patients were discharged because they died. [33] 

By the 1920s, the JCRA also had a facility for discharged “ex-patients,” located in Belvedere, just east of Boyle Heights.  As one of the founders of the Ex-patients' Home described, many of the patients who were discharged from the Sanatorium, often found themselves, "friendless, homeless and penniless." [34]  The Ex-Patient’s Home provided transitional housing while they got back on their feet, with social workers onsite to help them find part-time jobs and return to the workforce as they completed their recovery. The Ex-Patients Home was funded by many of the same organizations and unions who had helped to create the sanatorium and, in 1928, the two organizations merged to form the Jewish Consumptive and Ex-Patients Relief Association. The Ex-Patients Home was later expanded to include an outpatient clinic offer free diagnostic check-ups for residents of the neighborhood, particularly the relatives of Sanatorium patients, worried that they may too have contracted the “white plague.” [35] 

Even as the sanatorium grew, the founders of the JCRA maintained their socialist beliefs and their ties to unions and left-wing political parties. In 1925, they hosted a visit from Eugene Debs, longtime leader of the Socialist Party who had been jailed several times for his outspoken criticism of the U.S. government, just months before he died. In 1933, the sanatorium began construction of their largest medical building to date – a new hospital with nine units and sixty-four new beds to be named the Morris Hillquit Memorial Hospital. Hillquit (nee Moishe Hillkowitz) was born in Riga, Latvia and moved to New York after his father’s business collapsed during the tumult that followed the Tsar’s assassination in 1880. There he trained as a lawyer, immersed himself in Jewish radical intellectual circles, and became a founding member of the Socialist Labor Party of America. He helped to organize the United Hebrew Trades, an umbrella organization for Jewish branches of several unions, ran for mayor of New York City several times on a Socialist ticket, and served as the lawyer for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). He argued several high profile legal cases on behalf of various socialist magazines and newspapers, and wrote dozens of books, pamphlets and tracts about socialist theory and history. Hillquit also suffered from tuberculosis for most of his adult life, and spent several long stays at sanatoriums in New York. When he died from the disease in 1933, the ILGWU raised funds from branches all over the country to erect a new hospital in Duarte in his honor. The Hillquit Hospital remained in use on the campus until 2001. 

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