Horrors of dealing with TB are revealed

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A unique collection exposing the horrors of dealing with and being subject to tuberculosis (TB) in the first half of the 20th century at a former county facility has been put together by a team at Northumberland Archives.

Stannington Sanatorium opened in 1907. It was the country’s first children’s sanatorium set up to treat youngsters diagnosed with TB.

Former patient Tom Ridley, who now lives in Morpeth. Picture by Jane Coltman.

Former patient Tom Ridley, who now lives in Morpeth. Picture by Jane Coltman.

Through its advanced equipment and use of the latest techniques, it achieved a very high success rate in the prevention and cure of the disease.

For the young patients, however, this meant months, even years, away from their families as they fought the various strains of TB.

Removed from the impoverished home environment, good food, access to fresh air and sunshine were key to tackling the problem alongside a range of other treatments including surgery, bone and skin grafts and immobilisation, depending on the strain of TB involved.

The sanitorium continued to treat tuberculous patients as part of the new National Health Service until the mass availability of effective antibiotic therapies, at which point it began to be used as a general children’s hospital, closing in 1984.

Initial work by archivists – supported by Northumbria Healthcare’s Bright Charity – about the facility began with the collection of oral history recordings from individuals who had experience of the pre-antibiotic era of tuberculosis treatment.

Former patients and staff came forward to share their memories and photographs with researchers and in the process began to shed light on what the routine was like, how the treatment affected them and what they felt being removed from their families, homes and communities for months on end.

Archivist Karen Rushton said: “Before starting work on the project I knew very little about TB.

“Having become so involved with the records, it was quite surprising to see how common and potentially life-changing a problem it was only a generation or two ago. 

“This stands in stark contrast to the experience of most children growing up in the UK today and what was once a very high-profile and feared disease is now virtually unknown to younger generations.

“Reading the sanatorium’s old medical records from the 1930s and 1940s, from a time when healthcare was completely different to what we know today, it can be shocking to hear of some of the drastic medical procedures used and the seemingly dire outlook of many of the children. 

“But then following up with later reports and modern day oral history recordings, it is heartening to hear how many children Stannington Sanatorium was able to successfully treat and the stoical attitudes many of the children had to long-term hospitalisation.”

Following on from the initial work, a grant of £77,000 from the Wellcome Trust enabled the archives team – based at Woodhorn Museum – to catalogue a significant collection of case papers and radiographs of patients treated for TB in the period before the introduction of the use of antibiotics at the sanatorium.

This work has permitted detailed indexing and cross-referencing of the case papers and radiographs, providing a detailed web-based catalogue for the collection and conservation work.

With the project drawing to a close, an event at Woodhorn on Monday brought together some of the former staff and patients from the hospital as well as people who have recently inquired about their own or family members’ medical records.

Also in attendance was Dr Gbenga Afolabi, who was the project lead for Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust.

He said: “We would like to thank everyone for coming forward and sharing their experiences to make this such an interesting project.

“To hear their stories of how healthcare has changed so much over the years has been fascinating and we have been touched by their personal stories.

“The project not only acts as a lasting legacy of the sanatorium but also contributes to discussions around the world about the global treatment of TB.”

Anyone interested in learning more about tuberculosis, the history of the hospital and the experiences of those involved can find out more online though the website www.experiencewoodhorn.com or in person by visiting the archives at Woodhorn.