Tyne & Wear

Stannington Sanatorium photos shine light on TB before antibiotics

Aerial View of Stannington Sanatorium Image copyright Northumberland Archives
Image caption Stannington Sanatorium was the first purpose-built children's TB sanatorium in the country

A collection of photographs and records that lay undiscovered for decades has revealed previously unseen moments of those living with tuberculosis in the first half of the 20th Century.

Stannington Sanatorium in Northumberland was the first purpose-built children's TB sanatorium in the country and over the decades treated some 11,000 youngsters.

Opening in 1907, it was a place for malnourished children to get fresh air, exercise and good nutrition, with many of those admitted to the institution coming from impoverished backgrounds.

On 15 March 1908, the first of 50 patients were admitted.

Image copyright Northumberland Archives
Image caption The sanatorium provided fresh air and sunshine to the "impoverished" children

The aim of the sanatorium was to improve the health and wellbeing of poor children by taking them out of the "fetid air of the slums" of Newcastle to the fresh air of the countryside.

The institution used the latest medical equipment and techniques in the prevention and cure of tuberculosis - a bacterial infection which mainly affects the lungs.

Also known as consumption, it can also affect the bones and nervous system.

In these cases, traction would be used to apply pressure to the deformed bones and patients would often be strapped into supports and body casts for weeks or even months.

Image copyright Northumberland Archives
Image caption Some patients would be strapped into supports and body casts for weeks or even months to treat bones affected by TB

Tuberculosis

  • Tuberculosis (TB) is caused by bacteria (Mycobacterium tuberculosis)
  • It most often affects the lungs, but can affect other parts of the body including the bones and nervous system
  • Tuberculosis is curable and preventable
  • TB is spread from person to person through the air by inhalation of infected droplets from coughs and sneezes
Image copyright Northumberland Archives
Image caption Patients suffering from TB were given fresh air and sunshine in large wicker hospital beds on wheels

A lot of the surgical procedures at the sanatorium sound "very drastic" from a modern perspective, but they were a common approach in the pre-antibiotic era.

Karen Rushton, project archivist, said: "You ask yourself 'did they really do that?', but they didn't have any choice at the time.

"The treatments were so completely different to how it is today and it was literally just years ago."

Image copyright Northumberland Archives
Image caption Artificial pneumothoraxes were performed on patients with the intention of resting the affected lung and hopefully collapsing the cavities at the same time

Patient records and thousands of radiographic plates dating from 1937-1952 were given to Northumberland Archives when the sanatorium closed.

In 2013, archivists were awarded £77,717 from the medical charity Wellcome Trust to part digitise these "little-used" records.

Northumberland Archives appealed for help from former patients and staff to research the history of the sanatorium and the treatment of TB before the use of antibiotics.

Ms Rushton said "fascinating stories" emerged from the appeal, which piqued the interest of academics and local historians.

Image copyright Northumberland Archives
Image caption TB can make bones more susceptible to fractures and deformities

She said: "The radiographs alongside the records fill in the bigger picture. They give more of a visual impact than just reading it in medical notes.

"It was quite daunting looking at them for the first time. They are fascinating - you see things you don't expect and it makes it more realistic.

"When you read the records you get a good account of the social history - their experiences, where they lived, their family life... it puts the history of their lives and the area into context.

"It must have been quite daunting for the children at the time leaving home. But in the accounts from the children, the majority of them said it was 'difficult at first' but because it was just for children - they ended up more upbeat once they had settled in.

"The staff made a lot of effort to keep them happy."

Image copyright Northumberland Archives
Image caption A case of tuberculosis treated from May 1925 to August 1927

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