Health crisis reminds us of Saranac Lake’s history

Saranac Lake played an important role in the fight against tuberculosis in the late 1800s. (Provided photo — Historic Saranac Lake)

To the editor:

Many years ago, Saranac Lake rallied to fight a deadly disease. Today’s news sure has us thinking about our local history.

Tuberculosis killed 1 in 7 people in the late 1800s. Highly contagious and with no known cure, fear and stigma surrounded TB. Unlike the new virus we face today, many of its victims were young people in their 20s. Like today, quarantine was often seen as an appropriate solution, and sometimes people were isolated against their will. A person’s ethnicity, race and socioeconomic status affected the kinds of treatments available.

Noting the lack of options for the poor, Dr. E.L. Trudeau established his sanatorium in Saranac Lake with the goal of providing care to those who could not afford it. Here he established a model of treatment based on the efficacy of the human immune system. Early diagnosis with X-rays and lab testing was key to identifying the sick early. Hygiene was of supreme importance. Trudeau’s “cottage plan” avoided aggregation of the sick. Nurses and doctors provided supportive care in well ventilated spaces. The Saranac Lake regimen consisted of rest, fresh air, healthy food and attention to mental health.

Here we are, over a century after Trudeau’s death, facing a situation that is in some ways similar. For now, Trudeau’s same model of “non-pharmaceutical treatment” is the best hope against novel coronavirus. It’s not a perfect weapon, but for thousands of people in Saranac Lake’s history, it was effective.

Recognizing that fresh air was not a real cure, Dr. E.L. Trudeau worked for a scientific solution, just as scientists across the world are racing to perfect a vaccine today. Our two buildings — Trudeau’s medical office and his scientific laboratory — stand side by side at the corner of Church and Main, testaments to the power of medicine and science to fight infection.

Now, as the world falters in the face of a new disease, we find it reassuring to remember Saranac Lake’s brave cure cottage economy. Looking back in our history we find comfort in the resilience and compassion that doctors, nurses, patients and the hard-working people of Saranac Lake demonstrated in the face of a deadly pandemic.

We Saranac Lakers have demonstrated resilience in the recent past as well. In 2008, just as Historic Saranac Lake was pushing to complete the restoration of the Saranac Laboratory to open as a museum, the great recession hit. But with your help we pushed through, and we grew and flourished despite the hard times. We are confident that together we will do it again, because history matters!


Amy Catania, executive director

Mary B. Hotaling, architectural historian

Laura Ettinger, Ph.D., associate professor of history at Clarkson University and member of Historic Saranac Lake

Historic Saranac Lake


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