Buffalo in the ’20s: At JN Adam Memorial, a groundbreaking ‘sun cure’ for tuberculosis

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Tuberculosis. TB. Consumption. The bacterial infection usually manifest in the lung is now exceedingly rare in the United States, but a century ago, it was a scourge.

People afflicted with the “Great White Death” were sent to sanitariums far away from the rest of the population, where it was expected they would eventually succumb to the disease that was one of the nation’s leading causes of death during the first half of the 20th century.

JN Adam
Buffalo retailer and philanthropist JN Adam.

James Noble Adam was the owner of the JN Adam Department store and Buffalo’s mayor when tuberculosis became an acute problem in Erie County. He offered to buy nearly 300 acres of land in far-out Perrysburg if the state and city would build a TB hospital on the Cattaraugus County lot.

The JN Adam Memorial Hospital opened in 1912 with “comfort and contentment” of the patients at the hospital as the key concern.

jnadampostcard

In 1915, Buffalo was somewhat mystified and somewhat scandalized when “1,000 feet of motion picture film,” probably about 20 minutes’ worth, was shown as a fundraiser for the sanitarium. The packed house at the Elmwood Music Hall saw movies of “unclad children frolicking in the snow” at Perrysburg.

suncure-1

The images captured the first American implementation of Swiss physician Auguste Rollier’s “sun cure” for tuberculosis. Heliotherapy and fresh air was thought to be the only way to cure the ravaging disease.

suncure-2

The JN Adam Memorial Hospital was renowned in medical circles for its use of the rays of the sun to bring new life and vigor to TB patients. For decades, the place was the host of a constant stream of doctors wanting to see “the cure” in action for themselves.

sun-cure-23

Many of the images in this story appear in Char Szabo-Perricelli’s new book, “J.N. Adam Memorial Hospital: Her Inside Voice,” published in part by the Museum of disABILITY History in Amherst.

The book tells the story of the rise and fall of both the Perrysburg hospital and the sun cure — both of which saw a rapid decline after the discovery and more widespread use of antibiotics, especially after World War II.

The campus closed as a tuberculosis hospital in 1960 and was used as a facility for the developmentally disabled until 1993. It’s been mostly abandoned ever since.

Char Sbaro-Perricelli photo
Char Sbaro-Perricelli photo

Szabo-Perricelli has been photographing and collecting the stories of the J.N. Adam Hospital since 2001, chronicling the decline of the structures while finding meaning in what remains.

Char Sbaro-Perricelli photo
Char Sbaro-Perricelli photo

While there have been many who have worked to find new uses for the sprawling Cattaraugus County campus, the historic structures are suffering from the same fate as the people who called them home for decades: They’re out of sight, out of mind, wasting away.

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Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon is a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. writing about the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo unique and special. The storyteller and historian has written six books, worn bow ties since the 80s, and is the News Director at WECK Radio. A 25 year Buffalo media veteran, Steve's contributed more than 1400 Buffalo History stories to The Buffalo News, worked at WIVB-TV, Empire Sports Network, and spent ten years as a newsman and News Director at WBEN Radio. He's also put his communication skills to work as an adjunct professor, a producer of PBS documentaries, and even run for Erie County Clerk. Steve's Buffalo roots run deep: all eight of his great-grandparents called Buffalo home, with his first ancestors arriving here in 1827.