Friday, June 7, 2024

Tuberculosis and Children in 1930s Texas by Michelle Shocklee

My husband and I are getting over a virus that produces an annoying cough. We've had it for a week now, with no end to the coughing in sight. I made the comment the other day that our home sounded like a tuberculosis sanatorium.  

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, however, I realized how vastly different an annoying cough is from the cough of a consumptive. With modern medicines, vaccines, and medical care, we don't fear a cough the way people used to less than one hundred years ago. A persistent cough back then may not just be an annoyance. It could be the precursor to a terrible death. 

Pamphlet for The Children's Hospital;
all photos by Michelle Shocklee

My own family was affected by the horrible realities of tuberculosis. My grandfather died from the disease in 1932, and my father, just a boy at the time, was sent to a tuberculosis sanatorium, along with his older sister, for preventative care. While I don't have details about the time my dad and aunt spent at the sanatorium, the information in the pamphlet for the hospital that was given to my grandmother provides enough information to imagine what it must have been like. 

The Children's Hospital, located one mile from San Angelo, Texas, was established in the fall of 1930 and formed in integral part of the State Tuberculosis Sanatorium. The hospital consisted of two large dormitories, one for girls and one for boys, with approximately 16 beds for children in each of the eight large, airy wards. Each dormitory had four spacious screened sun porches, so arranged that the beds in the wards could be easily moved out on them. Lavatories were located conveniently and individual steel lockers were provided for the children's clothing and personal belongings. 

A cafeteria was located between the boys' and girls' wings of the building and provided a well-balanced diet suited to the children's needs. Directly above the cafeteria was a medical clinic where typical childhood illnesses and accidents were treated. 

One of the unique and important features of the children's building were the four school rooms. Located near the dormitory wards, these educational rooms were furnished with desks, chairs, blackboards, maps, charts, and other teaching aids. Three hours in the morning and one hour in the afternoon were dedicated to school. There was also a recreational hall, playground, and a library nearby. 

Who could be admitted to the sanatorium? 

According to the pamphlet: "Children eligible for admission to the Children's Hospital are limited to...(a) sub-standard children of tuberculosis parents; (b) sub-standard children with positive skin tests or children who show definite signs of tuberculosis; (c) children who show tuberculous infection and would otherwise be forced to live in a home with an open case of consumptive."

My grandfather was an itinerate Baptist preacher in Abilene, Texas. He often traveled throughout west Texas and east New Mexico sharing the gospel message, which is no doubt how he contracted tuberculosis. I don't know which of the above descriptions allowed my dad and aunt to be admitted to the hospital, but I suspect it was A, especially if "sub-standard" meant poor.  

Sadly, black children were not eligible for admission on any basis. However, a few years later a sanatorium for African Americans was opened nearby. 

A child admitted to the sanatorium was only allowed to stay for six months. Upon release, they could not be readmitted. I'm not sure how long my dad and aunt remained at the hospital, but I imagine they were very happy to return home. Yet that happiness was followed by extreme grief when my grandfather died from the disease. A sad reality for many, many families during those days. 

It would still be another decade or more before antibiotics were used to treat tuberculosis, and another decade or more before a vaccine was developed against it. Today, the disease still exists in parts of the world. According the the World Health Organization, nearly half a million new cases of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis are reported.

Your turn: Have you ever heard of a tuberculosis sanatorium? Share your thoughts about it with me. 

Springhouse at the Walker Sisters Cabin, the setting for
Appalachian Song

Michelle Shocklee 
is the author of several historical novels, including Count the Nights by Stars, winner of the Christianity Today Book Award, and Under the Tulip Tree, a Christy Awards and Selah Awards finalist. Her work has been included in numerous Chicken Soup for the Soul books, magazines, and blogs. Married to her college sweetheart and the mother of two sons and mother-in-law to two beautiful daughters, she makes her home in Tennessee, not far from the historical sites she writes about. Visit her online  at


Forever within the memories of my heart.
Always remember, you are perfectly loved.

Bertie Jenkins has spent forty years serving as a midwife for her community in the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee. Out of all the mothers she’s tended, none affects her more than the young teenager who shows up on her doorstep, injured, afraid, and expecting, one warm June day in 1943. As Bertie and her four sisters tenderly nurture Songbird back to health, the bond between the childless midwife and the motherless teen grows strong. But soon Songbird is forced to make a heartbreaking decision that will tear this little family apart.

Thirty years later, the day after his father’s funeral, Walker Wylie is stunned to learn he was adopted as an infant. The famous country singer enlists the help of adoption advocate Reese Chandler in the hopes of learning why he was abandoned by his birth parents. With the only clue he has in hand, Walker and Reese head deep into the Appalachian Mountains to track down Bertie Jenkins, the midwife who holds the secrets to Walker’s past.


  1. Really informative article. I will use some of your information in the book I'm writing.

  2. Dear friends of ours in the Philipines lost their eldest son to TB. As a poor pastor they had no money for the type of treatment that might have saved his life. We are so blessed in the US to have found away to eradicate it here. I've only ever heard of the sanitoriums through historical TV shows.

  3. Thank you for posting today. I have heard of tuberculosis sanitariums, but your descriptions enlarge my understanding. I am grateful that more than medical needs were thought of for these children.

  4. I grew up in a small town in SE Wisconsin during the fifties. I remember having to be tested for TB and then later reciving the vaccine when that became available. If my recollection is right, I don't think any kids contracted the disease, but several adults in the town did. A few decades before I was around my town had several sanitariums or people who had been diagnosed with TB.