In the early 20th century, people from all over the world came to Asheville seeking wellness. Today, they still do.
Before the advent of modern medicine, many incurable diseases proved fatal. Until the antibiotic streptomycin came along in 1944, one in seven people died of tuberculosis — widely known as “consumption” because it literally consumed the body from within.
“If the importance of a disease for mankind is measured by the number of fatalities it causes, then tuberculosis must be considered much more important than those most feared infectious diseases, plague, cholera, and the like,” wrote German physician Robert Koch, who discovered the bacterium.
Physicians soon began recommending a stay in Asheville to their convalescing patients, and, from about 1880 to 1930, the town became a destination for wellness.
According to a 1915 pamphlet published by the United States Public Health Service, North Carolina had the world’s largest number of tuberculosis patients. Rob Neufeld, columnist for the Asheville Citizen-Times, has explored and written about the mountain town’s history. He estimates that tens of thousands of TB patients relocated to the area during that roughly 50-year span in hopes of a cure.
“The healthful atmosphere had a huge impact,” says Neufeld. “Consumption cure was all about the fresh mountain air. Physicians noted things like ‘the pine-scented air,’ and ‘air pressure at 2,100 feet above sea level matching pulmonary pressure.’ It supposedly brought about the least stress.”
The number of patients who came to the area, along with the doctors who treated them, added significantly to the population over a short period of time. In 1880, Asheville’s population was a little more than 2,600. Ten years later, that figure had jumped to more than 10,000. And by 1930, more than 50,000 called the town home.
A number of wealthy and famous Americans came to Asheville seeking a cure. George Vanderbilt accompanied his ailing mother, Maria. He found the region so enjoyable that he decided to build a home here. He formally opened Biltmore House to his family and friends during Christmas 1895.
St. Louis entrepreneur Edwin W. Grove, the multimillionaire inventor of such cure-alls as the elixir “Tasteless Chill Tonic,” came to Asheville searching for a cure. In 1913, he completed construction of the Grove Park Inn, which remains an internationally famous resort. Thomas Wolfe, an Asheville native, succumbed to tuberculosis in 1938, but not before he wrote four successful books, among them the critically acclaimed Look Homeward, Angel. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who believed he was a carrier of TB, spent a great deal of time in Asheville during his wife Zelda’s hospitalization for mental illness.
Most people who came to Asheville, however, were average citizens, and they found several options awaiting them. There were sanatoriums that dealt specifically with TB, such as Oteen, Winyah, Gatchell, and Mountain. And a number of privately owned homes — many of those in the Montrose neighborhood — were specifically equipped with sun porches, which were considered necessary for a TB patient’s recovery.
At the time, the physicians and health care workers who flocked to the area were on the cutting edge of TB treatment. The first sanatorium was established here in 1871 by Dr. Horatio Page Gatchell. Dr. Joseph Gleitsmann established the next one, Mountain Sanatorium.
“I think one of the most important figures to make a contribution during that time was Dr. Karl von Ruck,” Neufeld says. “He introduced many new practices, kept journals on patients, and actually went to Germany to get the serum when it was first introduced.”
While the city benefited economically from the influx of people, natives eventually came to resent the ill. “It was an infectious disease,” Neufeld says. “People generally weren’t comfortable with it all.”
In 1913, several laws were introduced to hold down the increasing tuberculosis population. New regulations outlawed unlicensed facilities, prohibited tuberculosis patients from staying anywhere other than places sanctioned for treatment, required reporting of any known individuals with tuberculosis, and fined people for spitting on streets and sidewalks.
Despite the fact Wolfe died from tuberculosis, his mother publicly said she would accept no tuberculosis at her Asheville boarding house, known as “The Old Kentucky Home.”
Hoping to turn the city into a vacation getaway, Grove, of The Grove Park Inn, attempted to close down the privately owned boarding houses for tuberculosis patients. Residents had begun to refer to the boarding houses as “pest houses.”
During the 1920s and early ’30s, larger hospitals offering multiple care techniques began to replace sanatoriums and private facilities. In the 1940s, researchers discovered streptomycin as a cure for tuberculosis, and a chapter in Buncombe County history closed.
Asheville, however, never lost its appeal as a wellness retreat. Today, the region’s reputation as a center for New Age spiritualism and holistic medicine still brings people to its magic mountains.
It seems fitting, then, that a place Native Americans once esteemed for its healing properties, where physicians once looked to cure a deadly illness, now attracts a new generation of people in search of better health.
A native of North Carolina, David Aaron Moore is the author of Charlotte: Murder, Mystery and Mayhem from History Press. He resides in Charlotte and Atlanta, Georgia.