Rare Diseases

The Disease That Helped Put Colorado on the Map

The newly built tuberculosis sanatorium in Colorado where every patient has a separate cottage,1928. (Credit: London Express/Getty Images)
The newly built tuberculosis sanatorium in Colorado where every patient has a separate cottage,1928. (Credit: London Express/Getty Images)

When John Henry “Doc” Holliday headed to Denver, Colorado, in 1882, he was escaping murder charges for his involvement in a shootout at the O.K. Corral. But he stayed in the state not for crime, but for the sake of his lungs. Holliday suffered from tuberculosis, and at the time everyone knew that Colorado was the best place for so-called “lungers” to rest and recover.

In the 1800s, tuberculosis was the nation’s leading cause of death. The “White Death” was much feared and little understood. Since there was no vaccine or antibiotic available to fight the disease, the only hope many tubercular patients had was to move from humid, stormy eastern locations in pursuit of the west’s drier, higher, sunnier skies—all of which Colorado had in abundance.

The influx of TB patients that streamed into Colorado helped put the state on the map. At its heyday as a consumption sanctuary, an estimated one in three Colorado residents suffered from tuberculosis, the state was home to an unusual number of physicians, and a third of all Colorado deaths were from TB compared to a national average of one in 10.

1909 X-ray from the American Quarterly of Roentgenology of tuberculosis of the lung.
1909 X-ray from the American Quarterly of Roentgenology of tuberculosis of the lung.

Also known as consumption at the time, tuberculosis is caused by a bacterium that, when breathed in, can cause weakness, chest pain, coughing, shortness of breath and other symptoms. (Today, only three people per 100,000 suffers from TB in the United States.)

Previously, Colorado had been known as a haven for Wild West criminals and miners, thanks to a series of gold and silver rushes that made it an attractive destination for fortune hunters. But while its rudimentary towns and camps were rife with drunkenness, gambling, prostitution and crime, the negatives of Colorado’s unsavory reputation as an uncivilized, crude backwater were outweighed by the positives of its climate.

Physicians in the 19th and 20th centuries believed that fresh air, high altitudes and abundant sunshine could cure all kinds of ailments, and Colorado had plenty of all three. Although their beliefs about TB…