Legend in History: Dr. E.L. Trudeau
(This year’s Winter Carnival theme, “Myths and Legends,” brings to mind many legendary men and women in local history, from wilderness guides to sports legends to heroes in health care. Historic Saranac Lake is providing a series of articles celebrating some of the mythical and marvelous figures from Saranac Lake’s past.)
Of the many historical figures celebrated by Saranac Lake, the luminary to whom our village may owe the most is Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau, for it was his life mission that helped shape Saranac Lake as we know it today. Born in 1848 in New York City and educated in Paris, France, Dr. Trudeau grew up during a perilous time when the “White Plague” of tuberculosis (TB) was killing one out of seven people. When his brother James died after a brief battle with TB, young Trudeau cared for him at home. Wishing to marry Charlotte Beare and needing a means of support, Trudeau began medical studies at Columbia University. There he was taught that TB was non-contagious and inherited. Trudeau graduated in 1871 and embarked on marriage and his career.
Within two years of his graduation, Trudeau himself was diagnosed with TB. He assumed the worst. Following the conventional wisdom of the times, his physician urged a change of climate, and he first went to South Carolina, where his health deteriorated. That summer, Trudeau headed to Paul Smith’s Hotel, a place where he had enjoyed hunting and fishing during two vacations in his past. He was so ill that friends believed he was going to the mountains to die. By the time he completed the arduous journey to the remote destination, he was so frail that he had to be carried to his room in the arms of a guide who took the stairs two steps at a time!
Yet in the crisp, clear air of the Adirondacks, Dr. Trudeau felt transformed. Due to his daily regimen of fresh, clean air, plenty of good food, mild exercise and an optimistic attitude, his health improved. He found that “living the outdoor life” strengthened his body’s ability to fight the disease.
Dr. Trudeau made many friends in his new home, and as he regained strength, he began to practice medicine again, attending to the local woodsmen’s families — to whom he often “forgot” to send a bill — as well as visitors to the region. For the winter of 1875-76, the Trudeaus moved to Saranac Lake, a hamlet which at the time contained only Pliny Miller’s sawmill, a small hotel, a schoolhouse, a store and perhaps a dozen guides’ houses.
In 1882, he learned about the work of two European physicians, one of whom had offered TB patients refuge in a sanatorium setting and another who discovered a link between the disease and a specific bacterium. This discovery, combined with his own experience healing in the Adirondack environment, sparked in him a vision of Saranac Lake as a center for the treatment of TB. In 1885, Dr. Trudeau opened “Little Red,” a small cottage on Mount Pisgah, to house two TB patients hoping for a cure. Around this small building, the vastly influential “Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium” would grow, providing affordable care for working people with early stage TB. His holistic approach considered not only physical treatment, but also the spiritual and psychological well-being of patients, in addition to groundbreaking laboratory research on the cause and spread of the disease. The sanitarium quickly expanded, and the reputation of Saranac Lake as a health resort spread around the world.
Trudeau knew that TB was caused by a bacterium and that technically the “outdoor life” treatment did not destroy the germ in the body, but time proved that many patients, especially those who began treatment early, experienced significant improvement while in residence in Saranac Lake. Some say that the most powerful medicine that patients received here was a keen sense of hope that recovery from the dreaded disease was possible.
As patients flooded into town and demand for TB treatment exceeded what the sanitarium could provide, private cure cottages sprang up all around Saranac Lake, and the little village grew. TB patients reclined on porches in the daytime or slept out at night in the crisp Adirondack air. Porches were added to houses, and new houses with porches were built. Take a look at Saranac Lake architecture today, and you cannot miss the cure porches that are still evident on home after home.
Alongside his success as a physician and scientist, Dr. Trudeau faced many personal hardships, including the untimely deaths of three of his four children. His daughter Charlotte died from TB at the age of 20. His first house and little laboratory burned to the ground, but it was replaced with the fire-resistant Saranac Laboratory and a new family house.
In 1915 Edward Livingston Trudeau, age 67, finally succumbed to the disease that was the focus of his life’s work.
Thousands of TB patients received care in Saranac Lake over some 70 years. Eventually, the invention of antibiotics made Trudeau’s cottage curing methods obsolete, but the impacts of his work live on. Trudeau received many honors for his pioneering treatment of TB and innovative methods that included animal experimentation and one of the first formal training programs for nurses. Trudeau never accepted a penny of payment for his work at the sanitarium. In addition to his reputation as a brilliant physician, E.L. Trudeau’s reputation for altruism, kindness and generosity was unassailable. Like the namesake of the church he helped to found, St. Luke’s of Saranac Lake, he was truly “the Beloved Physician.”