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.