Nearly a century before the COVID-19 pandemic upended life as we know it, a devastating tuberculosis epidemic was ravaging hospitals across the country. In those dark, pre-antibiotic days, the disease claimed the lives of 1 in 7 Americans; in the United States alone, it killed over 5.6 million people in the first half of the twentieth century. Nowhere was TB more rampant than in New York City, where it spread like wildfire through the tenements, decimating the city’s poorest residents. The city’s hospital system was already overwhelmed when, in 1929, the white nurses at Staten Island’s Sea View Hospital began quitting en masse. Pushed to the brink of a major labor crisis and fearing a public health catastrophe, city health officials made a call for black female nurses seeking to work on the frontlines, promising them good pay, education, housing, and employment free from the constraints of Jim Crow.
Today’s guest is Maria Smilios, author of “The Black Angels: The Untold Story of the Nurses Who Helped Cure Tuberculosis.” We look at the unlikely ways in which public health developed in America, by means of these nurses who put in 14-hour days caring for people who lay waiting to die or, worse, become “guinea pigs” to test experimental (and often deadly) drugs at a facility that was understaffed and unregulated.
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