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The Onondaga Sanatorium, a/k/a Tuberculosis Sanatorium

Text Source: Syracuse and Its Environs, by Franklin H. Chase, Lewis Historical Pub. Co., Chicago, IL, 1924, pg. 493.

Amidst the tragedy of the need for a tuberculosis hospital came the tragedy of man's inhumanity of making politics pay.  Despite the scandals and charges of graft in the erection of the sanatorium near Hopper's Glen to the southeast of the city, there stands to-day one of the best and most advanced hospitals of its kind in the State.  Expert medical management has built upon the stigma of supervisorial committee graft in construction, the nobility of the public hand to aid the afflicted.

The real movement for the sanatorium began in June, 1909.  During the four years' discussion it was figured that six hundred and ninety-four people died from tuberculosis, who might have been aided and some of them saved from the dread disease if such a sanatorium as stands to-day had been built.  There was a dispute about the location.  Politics was in the game early.  There was never any question in the architectural end of the construction, which was looked after by Taylor & Bonta of Syracuse.  There was $154,000 appropriated for the work, but the sanatorium when formally placed in charge of the Board of Managers on October 2, 1916, had cost the county approximately $600,000.

It was in 1915 that rumors of "graft" in the building of the sanatorium began to spread.  The records of the Board of Supervisors for that year show appropriations for investigations.  The story was told in brief when, on June 5, 1916, the Supervisors' Committee recommended that the bronze tablet containing the names of the original building committee, cast at a cost of $190, be sold for $24 for junk and not put up on the building.  It cost the county $4,648 to bring back and put in prison the absconding supervisor, and a trail of suicide and grand jury indictments followed. 

But out of that muck heap of graft blossomed one of the fairest lilies of hospital endeavor in Syracuse.  Ten days after the sanatorium went into the hands of the Board of Managers in 1916, Superintendent Dr. H. J. Brayton sent for patients.  While those buildings were designed to care for  but seventy-eight, there were several occasions in that first year when there were more than one hundred patients in the sanatorium.  In that first year there were three hundred and ninety-nine applications for admission and three hundred and two admitted.  Nearly twelve per cent paid in part for their care, a sum that came to more than $2,000.  The second year there was an average of one hundred and three patients a day.  That first board of managers consisted of Dr. A. Clifford Mercer, president; S. C. Cheney, Drs. William J. Mulheran and T. H. Halsted and E. G. Edgerton.  Dr. V. M. Parkinson was assistant physician and Miss A. M. Harlfinger matron and head nurse.

Early in the establishment of the sanatorium, Mrs. John H. Tallman took up the work of bringing comforts and entertainment to the patients, and, when the Auxiliary was formed in 1919, Mrs. Tallman was made its first president.  The building for the treatment of children suffering from tuberculosis was begun in 1920, and that is one of the important departments of the work to-day.

Onondaga County Medical Society, 1906-1956, The Onondaga County Medical Society?, Syracuse? 1956, pp. 67-69.

Apparently the idea of Onondaga Sanatorium had its inception in 1909 when a deputation of anxious citizens crowded the County Court House and made a plea for a hospital to "confine" the ever increasing number of tuberculosis patients.  Dr. D. M. Totman, Public Health Officer, and Mr. J. Strong, Secretary for the Associated Charities of the County revealed a progressive death rate from the disease.  They said that in 1908 alone there were 219 deaths in the County from tuberculosis.  Syracuse was already a pioneer in the field of tuberculosis detection having, in 1908, opened the first tuberculosis clinic in Upstate New York under the auspices of the Bureau of Health with Dr. H. Burton Doust in charge.  In 1913 the County presented to the Board of Supervisors a set of plans ad $37,000 was set aside for purchase of land and $30,000 for building.  In 1913-1914 excavation started.  In April 1915, Dr. Harry Brayton received the appointment of Superintendent.

The Onondaga Sanatorium, located in the Town of Onondaga, received its first patient in 1916.  The plant has been somewhat enlarged since that time from the original 100 beds to the maximum of 260 beds, the last building having been opened in 1928.  The bed capacity, at present, 240.  The Sanatorium functioned under the County until April 1948 at which time, at the request of Onondaga County, the State of New York, Department of Health, Division of Tuberculosis, acquired ownership.  The functions of the hospital are the segregation, medical and surgical treatment of patients, the provision of diagnostic chest clinics, the teaching of medical personnel and cooperation in research in tuberculosis and related diseases.

The more rapid turnover of patients has eliminated the long waiting lists and now patients can be admitted on the basis of application almost immediately.  Other factors in this situation are the remarkable decrease in both the incidence of, and mortality from, tuberculosis both in Onondaga County and the nation at large; the use of effective anti-tuberculosis drugs; the marvelous strides in thoracic surgery related to tuberculosis; and the more effective public health measures for detection.  Tuberculosis, in general, is a preventable disease and can, when properly treated, be cured.

The staff of the Onondaga Sanatorium is made up of a Director, seven physicians, a dentist, 56 nurses, laboratory technicians, social worker, clerical and housekeeping staff.  The total number of employees required to maintain the hospital is 195.

The changes in the tuberculosis problem as reflected by the work in a tuberculosis hospital are, in part, evidenced by the fact that the Children's Building is no longer used as such, a far cry from the days of the "preventorium".  Some old photographs are available of older boys skiing down the adjacent hillsides in mid-winter clad only in the equivalent of a baby's "three-cornered pants".  The result of heliotherapy, that is sunshine treatment, was incorporated in a book written by Dr. Edgar Mayer.  Work in heliotherapy at the Erie County Sanatorium was attracting national attention in those days under Dr. Horace LaGrasso who, in addition to his work with sunshine, was making elaborate experiments with sun lamps.

In 1920 an x-ray department existed in the basement of the present Men's Building, but it was out-of-order.  A stack of glass plates testified to the fact that work had been done.  In October 1924 the x-ray department was reopened.  From this start grew the present x-ray department with stationary and portable equipment, fluorographic equipment, electrocardiograph equipment and dark room and storage facilities.  Specialized planigrams have become almost routine.  In 1955 there were 12,866 x-ray examinations.

The laboratory is a vital part of the function of a tuberculosis hospital.  It has grown from a small part-time position to now being headed by a qualified physician.  Chemical, bacteriological, histo-pathological and drug resistance tests are being carried on daily.  In spite of the work that the laboratory is able to do, however, considerable work has to be referred to other laboratories and to the Medical College.

Occupational therapy and patient education is emphasized.  Three Chaplains are on the staff, entertainment and movies are featured.  A hospital newspaper is published.  Two school teachers are on the staff.  A nutrition program is under the management of a full-time dietitian.  The grounds are maintained by a maintenance crew.  The hospital maintains three automobiles, three trucks, tractor and other motorized equipment.  The operating budget for 1955 was $978,000.  Students from the Medical College have some of their work at the Onondaga Sanatorium.  Other professional and lay-teaching is carried on.  A regular in-service training program with scheduled open meetings is held.

The past two generations have seen the greatest strides in the field of public health in recorded history.  John Bunyan once referred to "consumption" as "Captain of the Men of Death".  Indeed, for many years and in many parts of the world, tuberculosis led all other infectious diseases as the cause of death.  It is still a serious public health hazard and we must continue to have tuberculosis hospitals and we must continue to have tuberculosis control measures.

Text Source:  A Short History of Hospitals in Syracuse, SUNY Upstate Medical University:  Health Services Library:  Historical Collections:

The creation of Onondaga Sanatorium was approved by the County in 1913 in reaction to a popular movement, begun locally in 1909, to segregate tuberculosis patients from the rest of the community. In 1908 H. Burton Doust, M.D., had opened the first tuberculosis clinic in Central New York, but his efforts were not sufficient to deal with the problem, since, in that year alone, 219 people died from tuberculosis in Onondaga County. Construction of the new sanatorium continued through 1914; Harry Brayton, M.D., was named superintendent in 1915; and the first patient was admitted in 1916. In 1948 the New York State Department of Health, Division of Tuberculosis, took over the administration of the sanatorium from Onondaga County.

Submitted 14 March 2006 by Pamela Priest