Tuberculosis isn’t particularly feared today but in the 19th century it caused more deaths than any other disease. If you were living a century ago, you probably were inflected by the tuberculosis bacillus. Between 70 and 90 percent of Europeans and Americans were infected and in some major cities the rate was closer to 100 percent. If your infection happened to develop into active tuberculosis – often called “consumption”– you had a 20 percent chance of surviving the illness. It was a terrifying and deadly epidemic.
The flood of desperately sick people stressed city health care systems to the breaking point. So much so that, if you became ill in Milwaukee around 1911, you may have been hospitalized in a temporary “sanatorium” located in Kern Park in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood.
The park itself was a fairly new addition to the city. The 30-acre property was formerly the summer residence of the Kern family. It was described this way in the 1909 annual report of the Park Commissioners.
The Kern tract is a beautiful place on the west bank of the Milwaukee river. It is already laid out in park shape, is in an excellent state of preservation, and will, undoubtedly, prove one of the most popular picnic resorts in the city. The Park Commissioners favor having the city secure all the land it possibly can along the Milwaukee river, as it will aid in eventually securing the long-desired River Drive and preserve this beautiful stream to the public.
In 1910, before the city had a chance to do much with its new park, the health commission asked the park board for permission to house tuberculosis patients on the former Kern property. Although unoccupied, the Kern’s 20-room mansion was thought to be well-suited for use as a hospital.
The Social Workers’ Tuberculosis Sanitarium opened in Kern Park in October 1911 “for incipient and convalescent cases.” Patients paid a fee ranged from $5 to $10 per week, although free care was provided to those unable to pay.
In 1911, the annual report of the city park commissioners had this to say about Kern Park:
The only improvement made in this park was the laying of 943 feet of four-inch water main from Humboldt and Keefe avenues to the vicinity of the residence, this pipeline being planned as part of the future water system of this park. Free use of the residence was granted temporarily by the Park Board to the Social Workers’ Tuberculosis Sanitarium as a convalescent hospital, the building being used by the attendants, the patients sleeping in tents erected about the park. About 25 convalescents were cared for during the winter.
Keeping patients in tents seems to imply a certain disregard for their comfort, but good nutrition, lots of rest, and plenty of fresh air was considered the best treatment for tuberculosis. The general idea was to give patients an environment in which they had a fighting chance to build up their immune system.
It is not known when the Kern Park Sanitarium closed. The last reference I could find was a Milwaukee Sentinel article from July 14, 1912, which detailed efforts to eliminate sources of pollution entering the Milwaukee River. Waste water from the former residence drained directly into the river and sanitarium operators, the newspaper story reported, had been ordered to put an end to the practice. It is possible the sanitarium closed rather than undertake costly plumbing work on what was, after all, a temporary operation. Almost certainly the sanitarium was gone by 1914, when Milwaukee’s main tuberculosis hospital opened at the county grounds.