To those of us with only First World problems, there’s a quaint, Romantic aura associated with the ailment now known as tuberculosis, commonly called “consumption” in Victorian novels and Italian operas. Tragic heroines wasted away and died from it; poets aflame with its fatal fever poured out their heightened creativity in verse. TB may still be the world’s biggest killer among infectious diseases, with more than 10 million active cases estimated as of 2016; but in modern America we tend to think of it as a remnant of the past. With skin tests, BCG vaccine and antibiotics readily available, we feel safe from its ravages.
Prior to the mid-20th century, that wasn’t yet the case. In 1815, one in four deaths in England was due to “consumption.” By 1918, one in six deaths in France was still caused by TB. Treatment protocols ranged from the gruesome – deliberately collapsing a lung to give it a “rest” – to the pleasurable: You’ve probably seen French movies where upper-class TB patients are sent to a posh sanatorium for a nice long rest cure, involving lots of lounging about in sunshine and fresh Alpine air.
For the urban poor who were the most commonly infected, accommodations were more like prisons than spas, but the theory behind treatment remained fairly consistent for a long time: Rest, “heliotherapy,” sleeping in open-air spaces were all deemed curative. Even after germ theory took hold, environmental conditions were recognized as having profound effects on human health, for better or worse.
That was the mindset at the time that the Samuel and Nettie Bowne Hospital was established on the rural outskirts of Poughkeepsie. Samuel Bowne had made a sizable fortune hawking cod liver oil as a founding partner of the New York City pharmacological firm Scott and Bowne, and went on to establish a reputation as a generous philanthropist before succumbing to a series of strokes in 1910. His widow wanted to build a 50-bed hospital in his memory, choosing a site on the former Pendell Farm and donating $50,000 to the project. Construction began on the main hospital building in 1913; it gradually expanded to comprise three large buildings linked by long open-air porches, plus an array of pavilions and outbuildings.
That original structure – all that remains today of the tuberculosis hospital – eventually became the first building on the Dutchess Community College campus, Bowne Hall. The hospital itself was closed in 1956 due to radically reduced demand following the discovery of an effective treatment, streptomycin, a decade earlier. The use of the bovine-strain vaccine developed by French scientists Albert Calmette and Camille Guérin circa 1921 also became widespread during and after World War II. If you were fortunate enough not to live in an undeveloped country, the threat of TB had pretty much evaporated. (Ironically, antibiotic-resistant strains of the bacillus have been evolving in recent years, and the disease’s resurgence in Asia and Africa may yet find its way back here.)
In its heyday, however, the Bowne Hospital was a state-of-the-art wonder. Old brochures picture a “violet therapy” machine, a throat and dental clinic, a music room, a library, a lounge with a pool table. There were several spacious solaria, and every enclosed space was festooned with windows, awash with light. One of the main buildings, called the Preventorium, kept patients with latent (and thus not yet contagious) TB isolated from those who were sicker. Adjustable beds lined the long porticos, open to the breezes.
Upon closure of the hospital, the buildings were ceded to Dutchess County, whose Board of Supervisors presented Bowne Hall to the college’s first president in 1959. The structure became the main academic building on the new campus, housing classrooms, a library, faculty offices and a cafeteria. Bowne has since undergone extensive renovations and today houses administrative offices, classrooms and conference space.
To learn more of Bowne Hall’s intriguing history, visit www.sunydutchess.edu/aboutdcc/history.html.