The “Forgotten Plague” in the Upper Peninsula

You have probably heard of tuberculosis, also known as “consumption” or “TB.” But, did you know that, at its peak, TB was responsible for two percent of all deaths in the United States? Tuberculosis has a long history. Scientists have recently discovered that seals  transferred the disease to the Americas six thousand years ago. The first records of consumption deaths began in the US in 1786. At that time in Massachusetts, 300 out of every 100,000 people died from tuberculosis.

By the mid-nineteenth century, many consumptives moved to locales where the climate was supposed to cure TB, such as Colorado or upstate New York. TB was assumed to be hereditary, although it was noticed that the poor, African Americans, and immigrants were more likely to contract it (due to crowded–and therefore often more unsanitary–living conditions). In the 1880s, German scientist Robert Koch discovered that a contagious bacterium which he named Mycobacterium tuberculosis caused TB. This new understanding made consumptives into lepers who had to be isolated from society, and so the sanatorium (also sometimes spelled sanitarium) movement was born.

Sanatoriums were health camps that isolated TB patients from the rest of society, supposedly until they recovered enough to move back home. However, in reality, they were often “waiting rooms for death.” Patients underwent a strict regimen of fresh air and exercise (if they were capable). Many patients were put into sanatoriums against their will and resented their lack of control over even their daily schedule.

By the early twentieth century, one in every 170 people was in a sanatorium. But, by the 1940s, new and increasingly effective anti-biotics caused a decline in both the number and the severity of TB cases.

The Upper Peninsula, like the rest of the country, established sanatoriums. The first sanatorium in the Upper Peninsula, Morgan Heights, began in 1911 in Ishpeming and closed around 1970. Over that almost-sixty-year period, it housed approximately five thousand patients. Morgan Heights was torn down in 2002, although the nurses’ dormitory continues to be a rental house.

Here are some images from Morgan Heights:

Gert Leivo, Aino Maki, Edna Maki

Gert Leivo, Aino Maki, and Edna Maki. Presumably, they were nurses at Morgan Heights, although we have no evidence of that.

Dr. and Mrs. Lojocuno left MHS 1927

Dr. and Mrs. Lojocuno, who left Morgan Heights in 1927.

Christmas Program 1935

A Christmas/New Year’s party for the patients in 1935.


A group of patients at Morgan Heights, year unknown.


We have no information for this photograph, but presumably the woman was a patient at Morgan Heights.

The archives also possesses the patient records for Morgan Heights. The boxes and even the folders were somewhat water-damaged several years ago. However, the papers themselves miraculously remained intact. They were re-boxed into thirty-four boxes earlier this week, which should aid greatly in their preservation.

Previously, our policy was to restrict these records to all except children of patients, as formerly required under Michigan and federal law. However, in doing the research for this blog post, I discovered that recent changes in state and federal law have changed access policies to patient records. Under 2013 changes to HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), patient records now become open for historical and genealogical research seventy-five years after the patient’s death. State laws still apply, but Michigan’s laws have changed to match HIPAA.

Consequently, we can now provide access to the Morgan Heights Sanatorium Patient Records as long as the patient has been dead for at least seventy-five years. We are thrilled to be able to open up these exciting records to researchers.

Stop by the archives Monday through Friday from 10 AM-4 PM to learn more about Morgan Heights and other topics!

For more about the history of TB, and to see our sources for this blog post, please check out the articles linked below.

History of Tuberculosis

The Great White Plague: The Culture of Death and the Tuberculosis Sanatorium by Richard Sucre

The Sanatorium Movement in America by Caroline Luce: part of an extraordinary website, The White Plague in the City of Angelsabout TB in Los Angeles

The Forgotten Plague: Information on the PBS documentary

TB Timeline

Did You Know?: Facts about TB’s effect on the United States

Is An Old Tuberculosis Sanatorium Haunted? by Miriam Moeller: a Marquette Mining     Journal article about Morgan Heights

Access to Patient Records

Breakthrough for Medical Genealogy by Judy Russell of the Legal Genealogist blog: article on the 2013 changes in HIPAA

Treasure in TB Patient Records by Jess of the Genie Roadtrip blog

Written by Annika Peterson


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