Radio Program Captures Memories of Chicago MTS

Reporter Monica Eng of the Chicago public radio station WBEZ has put together a compelling account of the Chicago Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium. “Bed Rest and Sputum Tests: Inside Chicago’s Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium” is a fascinating combination of written words, images and recorded interviews with former MTS patients.




Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Take a Walking Tour of the former MTS Grounds on May 22

North Park Village Nature Center

When patients were admitted to the Chicago Muncipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium on the corner of Pulaski and Bryn Mawr avenues, they usually didn’t leave for months and often years. Anticipating that patients with the infectious disease would require not only a full range of medical services but also education, recreation, exercise, religious services as well as vocational training to resume their interrupted lives, the Sanitarium planners built a city within the city on the 160-acre site.

Although the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium closed in 1974, the main hospital buildings and much of the grounds have been preserved and repurposed. On Sunday, May 22, I will lead a walking tour of the grounds and share my research of this hidden site with the remarkable history that touches on urban planning, public health, architectural and landscape design and even–no surprise–corrupt city politicians of the early 1920s.

This event is an Obscura Society IL program, affiliated with Atlas Obscura. Tickets must be purchased online here.  The program will begin with a slide presentation given at the North Park Village Nature Center, which is located in one of the original Sanitarium buildings. Expect to walk for about an hour, rain or shine. If you can’t join me on May 22, but you enjoy exploring curious places in the world around you, be sure to check out Atlas Obscura.

Posted in Buildings and Grounds | Tagged | Leave a comment

Autumn visit

On a warm, sunny fall day in Chicago, I walked around the former Sanitarium grounds for a closer look at details I may have missed or didn’t have time to notice on previous tours.  In particular, I looked at decorative elements on the exteriors of buildings and looked at area around the service buildings (power plant and laundry, garages, etc.) on the eastern edge of the site. These simple, beautiful elements suggest that at the time of construction, the appearance of this publicly funded institution was considered as deserving of attention as its functionality.

For those of you who don’t have the opportunity to see the former grounds of the Chicago Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium, I’m sharing photos from my visit. Please click on the image for an enlarged view to see the details in the brickwork of the buildings.

Right now, I’m particularly interested in confirming my identification of these buildings, so if you can help me, please use the contact form.  And if you’re interested in touring the grounds, at the end of the month I hope to announce the spring 2015 tour date.

Chicago Municipal TB Sanitarium

The underground tunnels attract an enormous degree of curiosity among present-day visitors to the site. Here the roof of the tunnel is well above ground level; not sure that would have been the case when the Sanitarium was in operation. There is decorative brickwork edging on the walkway above the tunnel roof.

Chicago Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium

West-facing windows of the power plant / laundry buiding. The external decorative elements of these buildings in the service area seem to have been given as much attention as buildings in the areas where patients were treated and housed.

Chicago Municipal TB Sanitarium

Decorative element over an entrance to the four-story infirmary building constructed in 1926, 11 years after the opening of the Sanitarium. It provided 200 much-needed beds for women, men and children. There were 500 people on the waiting list at the time of construction.

Connecting passageway between the 1926 addition and the original infirmary building.

Connecting passageway between the 1926 addition and the original infirmary building.

Chicago Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium

Exterior of the men’s wing of the infirmary building. This element is repeated in several locatons. It looks like it may be a bricked in former entrance.

Chicago TB Sanitarium

Infirmary, first floor, east-facing windows.

Chicago TB sanitarium

A modified version of the Cross of Lorraine was designated in 1902 as the symbol for the international fight against TB. The cross appears in various locations throughtout the site; here it is on the south facing exterior of the former men’s infirmary.

Chicago Municipal TB Sanitarium

Are these concrete containers for raised beds? They are located on the west edge of the grounds, midway between the north and south boundaries of the site, in the area near where a greenhouse is indicated on site blueprints.

Chicago Municipal TB Sanitarium

This cement wall seems to frame a large rectangualar space that is close to where the greenhouse is shown on blue prints. There is a hard suface covering what might have been the floor area, with the longer sides facing east and west.

Chicago Municipal TB Sanitarium

Another view of what may have been the greenhouse site. In the original report published after the opening of the Sanitarium, there are notes on the plan to have areas devoted to farming on the site to provide fresh vegetables for the patients.

Chicago Municipal TB Sanitarium

This open path is on the southern edge of the service area.

Chicago Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium

The roof appears older than the cement block walls supporting it. Stables were located in this area when the Sanitarium opened.

Posted in Buildings and Grounds | 3 Comments

Eight and a Half Months in the Chicago Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium: One Patient’s Experience in the 1940s

A guest blogpost by William G. Mayer

My father, Joseph C. Mayer, was born in Chicago in August 1918. He lived on the near north side of the city until he married my mother in 1954. While growing up, I knew that my father had once contracted tuberculosis, but I knew very little about this episode until quite recently. While cleaning out the townhouse that my parents lived in during the last 18 years of my father’s life, one of my siblings found a cache of his letters from the early 1940s. At least in the time I knew him, my father was never much of a letter writer. Perhaps that was one price of being a very devoted husband and father to six children. But I quickly discovered another reason why he may have been a more avid letter writer during this time period: for most of it, he was a patient at Chicago’s Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium. Now, suddenly, I had an unexpectedly detailed view of an important period in my father’s life.

At the time the letters begin, in August 1942, my father was living with his mother, a German immigrant, and working for United Electric Coal Companies, whose offices were located at 307 N. Michigan Avenue. He was also taking night classes, primarily in accounting, at DePaul University.

How my father contracted tuberculosis is never mentioned in the letters, though my mother remembers his saying that he caught it from a close friend. He first became sick in late October 1942. A letter written to him on October 27 begins, “When your mother called me this morning I was quite surprised to hear that you were so ill.” Just one day later, the same correspondent writes:

“Your mother just called and told me that you had another hemorrhage and that you weren’t able to see the doctor last night to have the x-rays taken. If I were you I’d go to the hospital for a week and you know that it would relieve your mother of a lot of worry.”

Apparently my father took this advice, for on November 11 he received a telegram addressed to him at the Alexian Brothers Hospital, 1200 Belden Avenue. By late November, however, he had been transferred to the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium, a huge medical institution located at 5601 N. Pulaski Road. He would live there in Room 325 for the next 8 ½ months.

Much of my father’s correspondence while in the Sanitarium came from friends in the military. Most of them seem to have been people he knew from work or school who had joined the service after Pearl Harbor. As of 1943, none of them had yet been sent overseas, but he received letters from training facilities in Texas, Arkansas, Indiana, Florida, New York, and California. It is hard not to wonder about the psychological impact that being incapacitated and left “out of the action” had on people like my father. My father once told me that he had hoped to become an artillery officer, until his bout with tuberculosis ruled this out. (Also preserved in his papers is a selective service notice classifying him as “4F.”) One letter from a friend in the military says, apparently in reference to an earlier letter from father, “You mentioned your disappointment in not being able to qualify for the services.” My father had one friend from DePaul who seems to have had a good deal of affection for my father, but was not the most tactful person around. In July 1943, he sent my father a letter that included a lengthy diatribe against “draft dodgers” and 4Fs. “We fellows in service will excuse a person with a definite deferment,” he adds at the end, but one wonders how my father reacted to such a letter.

What was day-to-day life like in the Sanitarium? Since most of these old letters were written to my father, they shed little light on this question. Fortunately, however, my father also saved a couple of letters that he wrote and then, for whatever reason, never got around to sending. One such letter, written shortly after he left the Sanitarium, reads:

The patients are very friendly. Most of them were between 18 and 30 years old. There were about 60 fellows on our floor and in time you get to know almost everyone of them. On the whole the Sanitarium life wasn’t so bad. We used to play chess, checkers, rummy, poker, or pinochle. Also there were some fairly good looking women patients out there. There was a rule against visiting them. That was a silly rule. I learned how to play chess at the sanitarium. You can find a place like that only in this country.

“Although the doctors and the nurses and everything else considered [were] fine,” he concluded, “one trip out there was enough.”

Sanitarium rules notwithstanding, there seems to have been a fair amount of fraternization between men and women patients. After my father left the sanitarium, he continued to correspond with some of the friends he had made there, most of whom (at least in late 1943) were still patients. One such friend told my father in late August:

Everything is the same out here as usual, except that Yorky and I are better friends (lovers) than ever. We settled our disagreement the day you left and have been enjoying each other’s company blissfully ever since. Love is grand, Joe!

Most of the letters my father received from his former mates, however, deal with health issues:

–Everything is just about the same with me. My fluid is still with me and I feel like a million dollars in spite of the fluid. I received an examination and Dr. Fremmel said something about stopping my pneumo[thorax] on my left side. It seems it isn’t doing me any good so he wants to discontinue it. Can you imagine it, after two years they finally decide it isn’t doing me any good. What a pity isn’t it, getting stuck all that time for nothing.

–was out here last week, but I didn’t get to see him. He had been up in Rhinelander, Wis., raising a little hell and somehow managed to lose his collapse. The doctor got into him again, though, and now he gets the needle twice a week again.

My father was finally released from the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium on August 6, 1943, but his battle with the disease was far from over. As a recent article on the history of tuberculosis noted, much of the benefit of staying at a sanitarium probably came from the enforced rest and regulated diet the patients were required to observe. That was supposed to continue after they were discharged. As another of my father’s unsent letters commented:

The Doctor told me if I took care of myself and followed the pattern of life I set out at the sanitarium I could go home. I continue to go to bed at 9 every night and also take rest hours during the day. I am in no condition to go to work yet but that will come in 3 to 6 months.

As he complained in another letter, “I can drink one bottle of beer now and then” (the word “one” is underlined several times). He was also allowed to have one date a month.

His careful regimen notwithstanding, my father apparently had one relapse. In mid-September, he received a letter from another patient at MTS who said, apparently in response to an earlier letter from my father:

I’m sorry to have heard about the unfortunate situation that you are in, at the present time. . . . It’s really awful about you getting fluid. Do you have any thought about returning to the good old Sanitarium or are you going to rest at home?

Apparently, this setback was rather brief, however, for early in 1944 my father was able to tell a friend stationed in England:

Early in November, 1943 I started back to work. It was great to be working again, although the first month I only put in three hours a day. During December I worked four and in January it was five hours a day.

An unsung hero in this story, by the way, was my father’s employer, United Electric Coal Companies. Not only did they keep his job open for him – they also paid him full salary for the whole time he was sick.

 Thank you to William Mayer for sharing his father’s letters. 

Posted in Patients | Leave a comment

Life at the Sanitarium

Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium

MTS auditorium, ca. 1925. Courtesy of Kathleen Schnier.

What’s now known as the Peterson Park Gymnastics Center served as the backdrop for this 1920s-era patriotic pageant of young tuberculosis patients. Although the interior was gutted to accommodate the gymnasium, the exterior looks exactly the same today. The building originally housed an auditorium used for patient education and entertainment programming, like the charming children’s theatrical production shown in the photograph below.

MTS auditorium stage

Auditorium stage, ca. 1925. Courtesy of Kathleen Schnier.

The photographs published in this post are from the album of Mary Lynn, wife of Martin R. Lynn, who served as the Sanitarium supervisor at least through the early 1930s. I don’t know his exact dates of service, but he may have taken over immediately following the death of founding director Dr. Theodore Sachs in 1916.

Mary Lynn preserved photographs showing many sides of the life at the Sanitarium, from medical procedures to vocational training to visiting dignitaries. Some photographs were clearly staged for public relations use. Since there aren’t captions or notes, we don’t have a record of Mary’s impressions of sanitarium life. She include more photographs of children than any other single subject, so it’s a safe bet she felt sympathetic towards the youngest residents.

Light treatment at the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium, ca. 1925. Coutesy of Kathleen Schnier.

Light treatment at the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium, ca. 1925. Coutesy of Kathleen Schnier.

Mary and her husband lived on the grounds, most likely on the second floor of the Administration Building, which is still standing today and faces the auditorium building. Their daughter, Margaret, attended college during several of the years her parents lived at the Sanitarium.

Mary Lynn

Mary and Margaret Lynn in the residential area of the Sanitarium, ca. 1925. Courtesy of Kathleen Schnier.

Mary Lynn’s great-granddaughter, Kathleen Schnier, recently discovered Mary’s photo album in a closet at her parents’ home. Many thanks to her and her family for sharing this rare look inside the Sanitarium during the 1920s.

Administrative building, ca 1925. The second floor was a residential living area for the sanitarium supervisor. Courtesy of Kathleen Schnier.

Administrative building, ca 1925. The second floor was a residential living area for the sanitarium supervisor. Courtesy of Kathleen Schnier.

The auditorium building’s exterior wasn’t the only familiar scene I recognized among Mary’s photographs. Most buildings and landscapes look remarkably the same now as they did back then. Below, a group of children stand behind an exhibit of their pottery in a corner of one of the main dining halls. The wall sconces are still in place today.

Pottery exhibit, ca. 1925. Courtesy of Kathleen Schnier.

Pottery exhibit, ca. 1925. Courtesy of Kathleen Schnier.

Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium

Patients, Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium, ca. 1925. Courtesy of Kathleen Schnier.

Martin R. Lynn, ca. 1925. Courtesy of Kathleen Schnier.

Martin R. Lynn, ca. 1925. Courtesy of Kathleen Schnier.

Related: I wrote about Martin Lynn in an earlier post and included a publicity photograph of him welcoming the summer campers to the Sanitarium.

Posted in Employees | 3 Comments

Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium Through the Eyes of a Patient-Artist

Chicago MTS - 1

Drawing by Judith Nabar, 1965. Courtesy of Jennifer Dickson and Kate Nabar.

I really enjoyed receiving digital copies of these wonderful drawings of patient life at the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium. They remind me of today’s graphic novels in the way they convey compelling, personal experiences in the form of comics.

MTS cartoon

Drawing by Judith Nabar, 1965. Courtesy of Jennifer Dickson and Kate Nabar.

With lovely details and a light, often humorous tone, the cartoons portray ordinary moments in the lives of female patients at the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium during the mid-1960s. While few of us today have first-hand knowledge of the routines of sanitarium life, we recognize the behavior depicted in the panel where women gather around a patient taking her “first dose of PAS,” a tuberculosis medication that apparently became a rite of passage for this isolated community.

These drawings are the work of Judith Hope Traverso, formerly Judith Hope Nabar, who passed away at the age of 74  in 2012. They were discovered by her daughters Jennifer Dickson and Kate Nabar, who shared them with me.

MTS Cartoon 2

Drawing by Judith Nabar, 1965. Courtesy of Jennifer Dickson and Kate Nabar.

Around December 1965, Judith was admitted to MTS. Her name at the time was Judith H. Nabar. She was married and had three children under the age of five. She was discharged after 18 months and went to her mother’s house to continue her recovery. The children remained with other relatives until their mother regained her strength.

Judith left ten drawings on poster board, measuring roughly 11 by 17 inches. An exhibit of the full set is planned for a future date at the North Park Village Nature Center. Below is one of my favorites.


Drawing by Judith Nabar, 1965. Courtesy of Jennifer Dickson and Kate Nabar.

Posted in Patients | 11 Comments

Going Away to Camp MTS

Municipal Tuberculosis Sannitarium

Martin Lynn, Superintendent of the MTS during the 1920s, with children arriving for prevention camp at the Sanitarium.

The Chicago Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium Preventorium was a free overnight camp for city children at-risk for infection. The only requirement for admission was that the child be undernourished.

The camp was open from the beginning of July to the beginning of September. Boys and girls ages 4 to 14 years came from all neighborhoods and stayed for an average of 36 days. They slept outdoors in tents, frolicked in the playground on the grounds, hiked through the wooded areas and played (boys only) baseball every day.

Other highlights of the summer program were the “milk line,” held twice daily, and the “picture shows” and vaudeville acts held at the Hall for Health Education, the building that currently houses the Peterson Park Gymnastics Center.

In addition to getting fresh air and exercise, the children received much-needed medical care including dental work and eye exams. Half of the 213 children who attended camp during the summer of 1924 had their tonsils removed.

The photograph above was used with a news release and is dated 1929. The caption on the back of the photograph reads:

Some of the 600 children arriving with their baggage at the Sanitarium for their vacation. Mr. Lynn, the General Superintendent of the Sanitarium, is seen receiving them.

This wasn’t the first time I came across the name of Mr. Lynn; a few years ago, his great-granddaughter sent me an email. She told me her mother, Margaret Lynn, and three brothers grew up at the Sanitarium while their father was in charge.

Source: “Summer Camp at the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium,” Peter S. Winner, M.D., in Bulletin [of the] City of Chicago Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium, December 1924, pp. 5-8.

Photograph belongs to the collection of Frances O’Cherony Archer.

Posted in Staff | Tagged | Leave a comment

Early members of the MTS medical staff


Among the physicians who worked for the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium in its early years were a pair of brothers, Dr. Ellis B. Freilich (left) and Dr. Harry H. Freilich (right).

Dr. Ellis Freilich was first to work for the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium, as a member of the part-time dispensary staff. Prior to the opening of the Sanitarium on Bryn Mawr, the city agency charged with the management of TB was also known as the City of Chicago Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium. This agency oversaw eight dispensaries that served as free out-patient neighborhood clinics. Each clinic was open for 6 hours a week and a total staff of 37 physicians cared for all clinics. In 1915 alone, they treated nearly 22,000 patients.

 In 1917, the city decided to open all the dispensaries for full-time service (38 hours) seven days a week to meeting the increasing number of patients. The Sanitarium on Bryn Mawr had opened and was fully occupied, but  was “inadequate to house more than one-sixtieth of the know tuberculosis cases in the city. . . .” (1) 

At that time, Dr. Ellis Freilich and five other part-time staff members were the first to be certified for full-time employment. Dr. Harry Freilich was in a group of 28 physicians who were newly hired after passing the exam.

Patients were seen both at the dispensaries and in their homes. Staff physicians alternated between days in the clinic and days in the field, a routine that ensured physicians received adequate fresh air and exercise in the course of treating highly contagious patients. Field work included treatment of patients as well as canvassing the neighborhoods to identify new cases.

In the Monthly Bulletin of the City of Chicago Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium dated December  1924, Dr. Ellis Freilich was identified as head physician of the dispensary located at 10 S. Ashland Avenue. Dr. Harry Freilich was the head physician for the dispensary at 5625 S. State Street.

Photographs are courtesy of Chuck Freilich, grandson of Dr. Ellis B. Freilich and great-nephew of Dr. Harry H. Freilich.


1. Monthly Bulletin, City of Chicago Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium, October 1917.

Posted in Physicians | Leave a comment

Why TB cases declined when they did

Most medical professionals will say the discovery of streptomycin as a cure accounts for the reduced incidence of the disease in the early 1960s. As a result of this decline, the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitorium closed in 1974.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, writer Matt Ridley poses an interesting question: Did urban renewal policies of the postwar period reduce the incidence of TB before the antibiotic streptomycin was discovered? The discovery of a cure was a significant breakthrough, of course, but the isolation of patients and the removal of slums may have played an equally important role in reducing the number of cases. As obsolete as the idea of a santorium seems today, it successfully controlled the spread of TB.

In his comments on this subject, Ridley refers to Experiment Eleven by Peter Pringle. I’m looking forward to reading this new book, which isn’t yet released. It tells the little-remembered history of the discovery of streptomycin. Albert Schatz was a young graduate student who made the discovery and then was was robbed of both the credit and monetary rewards of his discovery. Ultimately he was robbed of the Nobel Prize.

Posted in News | Tagged | 2 Comments

A Job in the Microbiology Lab

A guest post by Susan Cachel

During the summer of 1968, I was employed in the Microbiology Lab at the Municipal TB Sanitarium. Dr. Robert Thompson {editor’s note: Governor James Thompson’s father}, the head of the lab and a very refined gentleman, hired me.

Because my family lived at Carmen and Kostner, it was easy to walk to work past Gompers Park, or take the Foster bus to Pulaski, and walk to the main entrance of the MTS. My job was to scan slides of sputum samples of patients who either had, or were suspected of having, TB. These samples were sent in from public health facilities all over Chicago.

The TB bacteria were unmistakable.  They were rod-like and stained a brilliant magenta color, and were sometimes so numerous that they really overwhelmed the slide.  I’m sorry to say that I would get very excited when I got a slide with TB bacteria on it, and I would yell “I got one!  I got one!”

Because I never had any exposure to TB, I was forbidden to go into the Pathology Lab, or have any contact with patients. In fact, I only glimpsed the patients at a distance.  However, I did attend an autopsy one morning that was conducted on a patient by Dr. Thompson.  I viewed the proceedings from a mezzanine gallery.

One of the perks of the job was that I got a free lunch every day at the cafeteria. The MTS had its own cooks and serving staff.  Because it was thought that good nourishing food was essential to combat TB, we were fed wonderful three course meals with desert. During lunch break, I could wander through the grounds, except that I had to avoid patient lodgings.

The MTS was a self-contained city, because patients originally were never allowed to leave the facility. Family and friends could visit patients at arranged times. The MTS had a school, a beautiful cinema/theatre, and spectacular forests, gardens, rock gardens, and koi pools. There was an elaborate underground tunnel system that connected most of the buildings. If it were raining, people could travel from place to place underground. There was an annual art fair that took place every August, that patients and staff could enter.

Posted in Employees | Leave a comment