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You Don't Say: In small-town Magic Valley, TB met its match

You Don't Say: In small-town Magic Valley, TB met its match

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Visit a genealogical library or go online and find your family tree.

Trace your finger from the top branch down toward the trunk. About the time you get to your great-great grandfather or great-great aunt, you’ll notice a pattern:

Some of your forebears died unusually young.

And you can bet next month’s mortgage payment that some of them succumbed to tuberculosis.

It’s not a good way to go.

The deepest cough you’ve ever experienced is followed by spitting up blood. You’ll have chest pains that make you think you’re having a heart attack. Then you’ll start to lose weight.

Left untreated, you’ll die slowly, gasping for every breath, as your lungs shut down one cell at a time.

Medical science looked hard for an answer for a long time, but not until the development of the antibiotic streptomycin in 1944 did TB began to ebb. Before then, surgeons used to poke a hole in the patient’s side and collapse a lung. Or they’d open up the chest and remove part of one or both lungs.

Naturally, the treatment killed almost as many TB victims as the disease.

At the beginning of the 19th century, half of the deaths in England were because of TB. In America’s cities during the first quarter of the 1800s, as many as one-third of graves were filled by the disease’s victims.

From the second half of the 19th century until World War II, folks who lived in the developed world were terrified of the disease. So they built sanitariums — refuges to isolate victims of TB, which is spread by people coughing and other folks inhaling the bacteria.

Idaho came very late to the game. After Gooding College failed in 1938, the state took over the property with plans to use it as a TB hospital for up to 150 patients. But until World War II ended, there was no way to get enough materials to remodel the buildings.

Tardy as it may have been, the Idaho Tuberculosis Hospital eventually became one of the best in the country.

For that, thank Dr. Alan Hart — a crusading radiologist who just happened to have been born a woman.

A pioneering epidemiologist, Hart took Idaho’s TB prevention and treatment program from nonexistent during the 1930s to among the best by the time he left Idaho in 1948. He was also a transsexual who in 1917 had one of the very first sex-change operations.

Hart was married by the time he came to Idaho in 1937, was hired by the Idaho Tuberculosis Association and later became the state TB control officer. Throughout the Great Depression and World War II, Hart traveled extensively through rural Idaho, covering thousands of miles to lecture, conduct mass TB screenings, train new staff and treat patients.

With the help of some donated buildings moved from the Minidoka Relocation Center, Hart in 1946 created a well-functioning hospital in Gooding that operated until the state shut it down in 1976.

He was among the researchers who recognized the value of X-rays to diagnose TB. Even rudimentary early X-ray machines could detect the disease before it became critical, often saving the patient’s life. It also meant sufferers could be identified and isolated from the population, lessening the spread of the disease.

By the time antibiotics were introduced, doctors using Hart’s techniques had cut the TB death toll to one-fiftieth of what it was.

And the Idaho hospital became a much less forbidding place than other sanitariums across the nation, renowned for its progressive clinical policies.

Tuberculosis isn’t dead yet. It reemerged in an antibiotic-resistant strain before part of the Idaho TB complex was razed in 1999.

And Dr. Hart? He went on to a high-profile clinical career at a TB hospital in Connecticut. After World War II, synthetic male hormones became available, making it possible for him to grow a beard and develop a deeper voice — which in turn made him more confident and his public appearance easier. He died in 1982 at age 72.

If your family has lived in south-central Idaho for four or five generations, there’s a good chance some of them survived TB because of Hart.

Steve Crump is the Times-News Opinion editor.



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