Modernism: Light, Air and Sun, all the foes of tuberculosis
November 13, 2018 12:19 PM   Subscribe

Robert Koch discovered the tubercle bacillus in 1882 (National Institutes of Health). As germ theory became better understood, medical professionals knew that isolation was key to prevent the spread of tuberculosis. A person’s best hope for recovery was to live somewhere with plenty of fresh air, sunlight, rest, and nourishing food. The standard of care (Harvard Library) for TB was primarily environmental—and the design of sanatoria influenced Modernist architecture (NIH). How the Tuberculosis Epidemic Influenced Modernist Architecture (Elizabeth Yuko for CityLab)
posted by filthy light thief (8 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Traces of TB-oriented design remain very much with us - the metal flange over the top of water fountain spouts, for example, was made standard in this era to keep people from putting their mouths directly on them and spreading the bacillus.

I've been researching the former Washington Health School here in DC for a while, which was purpose-built as a TB isolation school for white students in 1924-5. After the vaccine was introduced, it became DC's first school for disabled children, who previously do not appear to have been broadly included in public education here. In 1958, it was replaced by the city's first purpose-built school for disabled children, which was constructed next door (the health school is now a standard elementary school, its replacement now a holding school for students whose schools are under renovation, replaced by a newer campus).

As far as I can tell, the latter was only the second building here (the first being the 1887 Pension Building) to take accessibility into account in its design. Although I haven't been able to definitively tie this together, there also appears to possibly be a relationship between TB requiring standardized facilities design with a health-focus and the beginning of thinking about design for disability more broadly, as well as influencing modernist aesthetics.
posted by ryanshepard at 1:11 PM on November 13, 2018 [4 favorites]

the metal flange over the top of water fountain spouts, for example, was made standard in this era to keep people from putting their mouths directly on them and spreading the bacillus

Except in Pawnee, Illinois.
posted by The_Vegetables at 1:19 PM on November 13, 2018 [7 favorites]

How microbes ‘designed’ New York and the Museum of the City Of New York's exhibit Germ City, and how the urban microbiome is an overlooked aspect of city life, especially hitching rides.

We can design the built environment for Invisible Inhabitants to clean up our urban environments, a kind of Holobiont Urbanism.

As it turns out, John Snow knew quite a lot
posted by the man of twists and turns at 1:24 PM on November 13, 2018 [6 favorites]

The Citylab article casts light on Jane jacobs's _The Life and Death of Great American Cities_, which argues that the urban renewal of her day was intended to make cities as little as possible like cities, thereby robbing them all of cities' advantages, gaining none of the advantages of living outside a city, and creating new urban disadvantages that had not existed before. She points out that urban renewal combined with modernist architecture creates vast empty plazas and lawns where no one has any reason to go, no one is watching, and anything can happen: panopticons with no central watcher. All Jacobs's arguments are self-evidently true as soon as tuberculosis is curable and vaccines are generally available. Right up till that point, the teeming, narrow, public spaces she favors look like nothing so much as pestholes.

There is an interesting parallel here with wetlands, now much cherished as bird refuges, and which formerly, when malaria and yellow fever were public health problems, were the first thing you got rid of when you wanted land made habitable.
posted by ckridge at 1:39 PM on November 13, 2018 [8 favorites]

Great post - it's so cool to learn more about how TB affected culture and society. There's more in this pretty watchable hour-long doc on TB, from which I learned in the late 1800s, nearly 1% of the population of the USA was living in TB sanatoriums.

It also goes into the shift from TB as this class-transcending disease to - after the development of germ theory - something used as a way to further oppress working class people, poor people, and immigrants. Which is a good lesson for work today - to not let health concerns or other noble concerns be used as tools for oppression.
posted by entropone at 2:11 PM on November 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

Permit me to recommend Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City, by Catherine McNeur. She discusses ways in which upper-class people and the city government tried to get public spaces under control during the vast influx of Irish immigrants. On the one hand, they were having cholera epidemics, and were reasonably and correctly sure that this happened in the city and not the country because the city was filthy. They had no notion at all that it was the water supply though. They would go into slums and paint all the houses white, on the supposition that, since new white paint was cleaner, it would make the disease go away.

On the other hand, part of that same controlling instinct led to attempts to keep poor people off Fifth Avenue. Evidently rich people liked to promenade. They would dress up nice and swan about nodding and tipping hats to one another. Whether or not people nodded or tipped their hats back was a great big deal. Poor people would do this too, and could often afford nice enough clothes and swan about well enough that one might nod to them by accident, which would be a social catastrophe. Black people would dress up and swan about, sometimes very well, which seemed to the rich to destroy the whole value of social success, thereby imperiling society. McNeur argues that filth everywhere and poor people promenading both struck people in charge as more or less the same sort of environmental problem.
posted by ckridge at 4:52 PM on November 13, 2018 [6 favorites]

This is great!

The last article sounds weirdly contemporary, what with the Koch and the Trudeau and Davos.

Also, if it wasn't for the TB, a stay at a sanitorium sounds like what I need right now. Sitting on the deck in a recliner, quietly enjoying nature...
posted by clawsoon at 3:22 AM on November 14, 2018

Except in Pawnee, Illinois.

posted by leotrotsky at 11:24 AM on November 14, 2018

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