Thursday, May 29, 2008

Research crazy

I've been working on a scene for my historical novel that centers on a 14-year-old girl in a Pasadena, California TB sanitorium in 1918. Patients had to eat raw eggs and milk 4-6 times a day. (Think Rocky Balboa: all of this protein was meant to beef up those being consumed by TB, which was also called "consumption" because the body would burn itself out and waste away.)

Thank goodness for all of the databases available at our public/university library. So much information is at my fingertips. Of course there's the ongoing risk that I'll get happily drunk on history and have an oh-I-forgot-to-write hangover.

I just talked over the phone to a very helpful a medical historian at the National Institutes of Health. I had some questions that he was able to answer, such as: Would her family have visited often? Would she have been able to interact much with other patients? WWI was just coming to an end at that time, and I know some TB-infected soldiers were staying at Barlow: would she have been able to talk to them?

I recently learned this amazing fact: In the early 1900s, more than 80% of the U.S. population was infected with TB, and tuberculosis was the single most common cause of death.

Due to antibiotics, TB cases reduced significantly by mid-century. However, some TB hospitals continued in operation. My mom worked as a nurse at this one in the early 1960s.


Jennifer deG said...

That's so interesting! I was just going to do some research into sanitoriums (sanitoria?) myself, as I'm trying to write something based on my grandmother's experience at one in San Mateo (it's now Pulgas Ridge Open Space Reserve) in the 1930s. I ran into a snag because a scene I'd written involved the sick girl's mother asking her brother for help paying for treatment, but it seems many were treated for free as a matter of public health then.

My grandmother seems to have had a great time there, getting in trouble for singing to entertain other patients, sleeping outside when the weather was warm. A patient from the men's ward even fell in love with her!

Jennifer dG

Becky C. said...

My undergraduate degree was in history (specifcally Early American Intellectual/Cultural History)--and one of the things I loved the most was going into the basement of the library and researching all the stuff on microfiche--newspaers, old novels, pamphlets, etc.--ok maybe I am odd--and my interest often tended to wander beyond the topic I was researching--but I did really love it--and spent hours and hours on it


Justin Evans said...

Well, just like Becky, I did my undegrad in history. I wrote my thesis on anti-Chinese legislation prior to the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, so if you ever need to know about that little slice of history, drop me a comment.

Arlene said...

yikes. i caught TB as a baby, kate — passed on by the nursemaid. it was quite rampant in manila and still kills it's share of people there.

love your research!!


p.s. i've got a literary favor to ask. pretty puh-lease e-mail me? aangpoetry (at) yahoo (dot) it

Jo A. T.B. said...

Just so happens my Japanese Grandmother died from TB too. Was a most prevalent disease at the same time in Japan also! I've had problems finding Japanese data for my memoir. Mostly written for what happens in the U.S. not Japan! Your story sounds very intriguing. :)

Kate Evans said...

Wow, everyone, I'm surprised and thrilled by all this feedback! Makes me think there will be a big audience for my novel!

Thanks for all your insights (every one of them provides sparks for my writing) and the offers of help.

It's amazing how TB is almost eradicated now but was a huge presence in people's lives a good part of the 20th century.