Sunday, March 29, 2020

The WPA, tuberculosis, and social distancing

Above: The caption for this 1937 photograph reads, "Movable tuberculosis units built by WPA to be placed in patient's own backyard to isolate patient from rest of family." Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Above: A WPA-built tuberculosis hut in Georgia, ca. 1935-1943. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Social distancing, New Deal-style

The Mayo Clinic describes tuberculosis as "a potentially serious infectious disease that mainly affects your lungs. The bacteria that cause tuberculosis are spread from one person to another through tiny droplets released into the air via coughs and sneezes." (Sound familiar?)

During the 1930s, tuberculosis was a serious problem in the U.S., and the New Deal built many tuberculosis hospitals. However, the available beds were not always sufficient to meet demand. So, in some areas, portable tuberculosis huts were made. For example, a 1942 newspaper article reported:

"Quite often a [hospital bed] waiting list is necessary, and it is during this waiting period that the portable tuberculosis hut is used. The family is taught the care of a person with a contagious disease, and the patient is visited and made comfortable by the county tuberculosis nurse... The County Supervisor moves this hut on one of the county trucks wherever it is needed. This small hut has done much to prevent the spread of tuberculosis among the people of Greenwood county" ("Portable Hut for Care of TB Patients in Greenwood County," The Index-Journal (Greenwood, South Carolina), August 8, 1942, p. 5).

Portable tuberculosis huts seemed to have been utilized quite a bit during the 1930s and 40s, and were built by the WPA and other organizations. The huts helped maintain social distancing, while still keeping families together, and probably also helped reserve hospital beds for the most serious of cases.

The WPA also engaged in many other tuberculosis efforts. For example, a 1940 newspaper article in New Jersey noted: 

"The WPA Tuberculosis Project, operating in nine counties, resulted in the discovery of 28 cases of that dread disease during June... [the WPA] made 1,596 home visits, took 210 X-rays, and gave 192 tuberculin tests. Twenty-three clinics were held, with an attendance of 642 persons" ("WPA Finds 28 Cases of Tuberculosis in Nine Counties," The Daily Journal (Vineland, New Jersey), July 23, 1940, p. 2). 

Above: A WPA poster, promoting tuberculosis testing. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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