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It’s time to reprint Dr. E.L. Trudeau’s autobiography

June 12, 2012
By Neal Burdick

A century ago, Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau, no doubt prodded by friends and associates, began thinking in earnest about writing his autobiography. In the book, which came out in 1916, he stated that the writing of his life's story would likely be his last act of consequence. In his 67th year by the summer of 1915, a virtual invalid since 1905, he felt his health ebbing. Indeed, by that time he found it necessary to dictate much of the manuscript.

The book did prove to be Trudeau's final major accomplishment, for he died that fall, at his home in Saranac Lake, before it could be published.

Even to a non-resident history buff, it is clear that Trudeau put Saranac Lake on the map. A ground-breaker in care-giving and medical research, he made Saranac Lake a world capital for tuberculosis study and treatment from the 1880s until the 1950s, and a seat of medical advances to the present day. He brought worldwide fame to Saranac Lake, turning it in short order from an isolated, one-lumber-mill hamlet at the headwaters of the Saranac River into a bustling community to which several trains a day brought the likes of baseball great Christy Mathewson, composer Bela Bartok, Philippines President Manuel Quezon, writer Walker Percy, New York City First Lady Mrs. Fiorello LaGuardia (the story goes that Mayor LaGuardia sent "real" Italian food to her every Sunday on the train) and gangster "Legs" Diamond, who brought his personal bodyguard along.

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Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau

While Trudeau's place in Adirondack history is secure, not so well known is his high station in the history of medicine. Working in primitive conditions in a remote mountain community, he built the first laboratory in America dedicated to original research on TB and soon began sending out findings in bacteriology that attracted worldwide attention. A proselytizer of European doctors' germ theory, which dictated that TB was infectious and that isolation was crucial to preventing its spread, Trudeau also founded the first private, nonprofit tuberculosis sanatorium in the U.S., a model that rapidly became the American prototype for a revolutionary health care movement.

In "An Autobiography," the remarkable book he did not live to see in print, are most of the better-known stories about Trudeau, told in his own words:

-His 1873 arrival, virtually on his death bed, at Paul Smith's Hotel, upon which he was carried to his room in the arms of the Trudeau family guide Fred Martin, who exclaimed, "Why, Doctor, you don't weigh no more than a dried lamb-skin"

-His hunting prowess

-His description of a harrowing, blizzard-raked three-day sleigh ride, with his family, from Malone to Paul Smith's

-The devastating deaths of three of his four children

-His rabbit experiments, through which he proved his germ theories and helped change the way the world attacked a horrific disease

-His friendships with standoffish Robert Louis Stevenson - who spent a rugged winter in Saranac Lake for his health, morbidly measuring the growing length of an icicle on his rented cottage - and garrulous innkeeper Paul Smith

-His vision on the "fox run" on Mount Pisgah that led to construction of the famed "Little Red," his first "cure cottage," and the founding of the Adirondack Cottage Sanatorium, which Fitz Greene Hallock, his close friend and favorite guide, complained was the ruination of perfectly good hunting ground even as he joined with other guides to purchase the site for the doctor.

Without calling undue attention to the fact, "the beloved physician" reminded readers that his philosophy was never to refuse treatment to anyone, regardless of financial means - indeed, he opened his sanatorium expressly for those who were not wealthy - and to welcome people of all stripes. This in an era when establishments such as the Lake Placid Club, a dozen miles away, posted notices that "Jews and consumptives need not apply." He had lost a brother to the disease and would see it claim his only daughter. And he was a sufferer himself. He did not have to contrive empathy for his patients.

Beyond anecdotes, the book mirrors a man who blended modesty with pride, who was charming, stubborn, articulate, plainspoken, warm and caring, slightly irreverent, well connected, often lucky, religious, determined, optimistic, given to rapid mood swings, witty, incisive, opinionated. It reveals a man who sometimes could not raise himself from his bed and yet was able to summon enough energy to publish his research and found and serve as first president of the National Tuberculosis Association. He depicted himself as a man who loathed fundraising, yet was so good at it that he succeeded in attracting support not only for his growing sanatorium but also for two churches, a library and numerous civic causes in his adopted community.

"An Autobiography" also demonstrates that Trudeau was, among so much else that he excelled at, a very talented writer.

Reissued several times, but not for nearly 70 years now, this long-out-of-print classic of Adirondack literature deserves to be published again as the centennial of Trudeau's passing approaches and the future of the health industry in Saranac Lake seems uncertain. For nowhere else can we get a better picture of a man who influenced not only local but also national and even world history, or a more dramatic portrayal of a rapidly developing Saranac Lake and its environs in the period 1875-1915. His story needs to be made available to new generations of readers.


Neal Burdick lives in Canton, where he writes frequently on Adirondack topics. He is a descendant of E.L. Trudeau's guide Fitz Greene Hallock. This commentary is adapted from one that appeared in the Adirondack Explorer magazine in 2011.



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