Lilly Samson’s Dispatches from the TB Front
by Diane Sims
Your Scrivener Press (2008) ISBN: 978-1-896350-30-1 207 pages, paperback
People arriving for “the Muskoka Cure” usually look for a pleasing period of R&R in a rugged yet refined setting.
But for more than half a century, the cure was something much more specific for those afflicted by tuberculosis.
Doctors in the late 1800s recommended rest, adequate nutrition, and fresh clean air, which is exactly what others had been coming to Muskoka to get since the 1860s. So it seemed the district was naturally primed to become a refuge for those seeking respite and cure from the ravages of tuberculosis.
However, there were other possibilities. In A Life Consumed, author Diane Sims explains how philanthropic Toronto book publisher Sir William Gage, after visiting TB sanatoria in Europe and America, vowed that Canada should have such a facility, searched for “just the right spot,” and decided on Toronto. Yet when Gage offered the city $25,000 to start a sanatorium, council saw risks and took a pass.
Suddenly, in one of those noteworthy moments when a Muskoka municipality was blessed with far-sighted leaders, Gravenhurst stepped up. The town pledged $10,000 toward costs, as Sims notes, “if the san was built in or near the town. That cinched it.” Gage’s $25,000 was further topped up by additional contributions of $25,000 from Hartland Massey, $10,000 from William Christie, and other donations. Muskoka Cottage Sanatorium opened its “cottage” doors to 35 patients in 1897.
Gravenhurst, “the Gateway to Muskoka,” thus became the first place in Canada with a sanatorium for TB patients. The locale was ideal, and treatment methods represented the most advanced approaches to tuberculosis of the day.
Building on these strengths, Gravenhurst steadily emerged to prominence in the field. The town came to boast not one but three different institutions —the original Muskoka Cottage Sanatorium, the Muskoka Free Hospital for Consumptives after 1902, then the Calydor Sanatorium, which emerged between 1908 and 1916.
The compelling story of the thousands of tuberculosis patients and their treatment at these Gravenhurst facilities has made its way into a number of Muskoka books.
This one, written by Diane Sims, takes a reader through the experience from a patient’s perspective. The author is a niece of young schoolteacher Lilly Samson from Goulais River, north of Sault Ste. Marie, who arrived at the sanatorium in 1924. Sims subtitles her powerful story Lilly Samson’s Dispatches from the TB Front. She drew on her aunt’s diaries and letters home for a personal and direct account of the hopes, fears, treatments, and experiences of a patient with tuberculosis in a 1920s Canadian institution.
Those who came to Gravenhurst’s sanatoriums were, in time, either discharged through the front door cured of tuberculosis, or through the rear door in coffins. Sims conveys the realities of this compelling human drama, even as she paints the larger contextual picture of medical science, public and private funding of treatment facilities, and the roles of doctors, nurses, staff, and families.
Prisoners of hope inhabited the tuberculosis sanatoriums. From all walks of life, they were intelligent, often artistic, and resolutely determined. This I discovered for myself in the 1950s, when setting articles they had written into type for their monthly magazine The Sanitarium Sun, which our family printed at Bracebridge.
Through the eyes of Lilly Samson, Diane Sims sensitively takes us inside this institution and into the lives of these remarkable men and women, Lilly and her friends at “the San.” They lived out their hopes a-half century or more ago, but their vivid stories again come to life now in A Life Consumed.
Only a woman who has travelled courageously along the uncertain edges of a life threatened with grave illness, as author Diane Sims has, could so superbly translate the Lilly Samson story into the compelling human drama that it is.
A Life Consumed is an accurate synthesis and sensitive account of the human experience with tuberculosis in Canada, from treatment in the late 1800s to present times, when this year some three million people world-wide will die from the disease.
If you could read only one book for all dimenisons of the tuberculosis phenomenon, this should be it.