A long line of physicians came to Asheville, some to convalesce themselves, and ended up staying, building practices and promoting Asheville as a health retreat. From the late 1880s to the 1930s Asheville rose in prominence as a curative place for tuberculosis. Boarding houses just for this condition, such as the Brexton Boarding House, were abundant. It is notable that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, tuberculosis was one of the foremost diseases leading to fatalities.
In the 1870s, Asheville was a small town and not very accessible. Dr. H. P. Gatchell, one of the pioneers of treating tuberculosis in Asheville, published a pamphlet promoting the advantages of the Asheville climate for health seekers. It was entitled Western North Carolina--Its Agricultural Resources, Mineral Wealth, Climate, Salubrity and Scenery. Dr. Gatchell opened The Villa, a sanitarium exclusively for tuberculosis patients, in the area that is now the Kenilworth neighborhood. This was the first tuberculosis sanitarium in the United States preceding the Trudeau Sanitarium in New York.
After Gatchell's departure, Dr. Joseph Gleitsmann, a German born and trained doctor, arrived in Asheville to establish the Mountain Sanitarium for Pulmonary Diseases located on North Main Street (now Broadway Street). Gleitsmann systematically studied the United States and “selected Asheville as having an optimum combination of barometric pressure, temperature, humidity and sunlight” which he believed to be conducive to healing tuberculosis. Gleitsmann is credited with helping to establish Asheville as a center for tuberculosis treatment, not because of his sanitarium, but because of the many articles he wrote and talks he gave at medical gatherings promoting the benefits of the Asheville climate. His work was respected in medical circles and patients from all over the country were referred to him and the Asheville area as especially curative.
With the introduction of the railroad in 1880 and further connection to Knoxville in 1883, Asheville was suddenly a day's travel away from many cities on the East Coast and more accessible from the hot humid cities of the South. Tourists and health seekers alike came in hordes to Asheville, prompting the development of hotels, boarding houses and eventually more sanitaria. The area was promoted by business people of all types. One booklet entitled Asheville, Nature's Sanitarium described Asheville as the “mecca of the Southron [sic] as he flees from the mosquito, heat and malaria of the Southern Summer, and the Northerner as he shivers from the blizzards of the North and West.”
One of Asheville's greatest promoters was Dr. S. Westray Battle who came to Asheville in 1885 and turned out to be, perhaps, the most influential doctor to come to the area. Through his connections and reputation, many wealthy individuals and families came and ended up staying in Asheville. Among them was George Vanderbilt, who accompanied his ailing mother. While in Asheville, Vanderbilt fell in love with the area and returned to build his now famed Biltmore Estate. Edwin W. Grove also came to Asheville as one of Battle's patients and stayed on to build Grove Park Inn, the Grove Arcade and the Grove Park neighborhood. Battle himself was very involved in civic activities and established North Carolina's first chapter of the American Red Cross as well as being in the National Guard.
A long line of physicians came to study with Von Ruck and then moved on to open their own practices and sanitaria. These physicians became highly regarded tuberculosis specialists, further bolstering Asheville's reputation and function as a center for tuberculosis care. Physicians also came to Asheville who were associated with Battle and later became well known in their own right.
In 1900, there was only one sanitarium available, the Winyah, with 60 beds. The rest of the patients that came to Asheville stayed in boarding houses that had open air sleeping porches, thought to be necessary for recovery. Between 1900 and 1910, the number of sanitaria and boarding houses greatly increased. These sanitaria and boarding houses were usually on the outskirts of town, but as Asheville grew, they came to be within the city limits.
By 1930, Asheville bragged 20 tuberculosis specialists and 25 sanitaria with a total of 900 beds. But with the rise of state care and the depressed economy, the market for the private sanitaria had dwindled. The hospital at Oteen had a 1,000-bed sanitarium and provided care to veterans at no cost. In 1937, the State opened a sanitarium offering care at the rate of 50 cents to $1.50 a day, which was by far the cheapest care available. During the 1930s and 1940s the sanitaria and boarding houses for tuberculosis patients closed with just a few remaining into the 1950s. As antibiotic treatment was introduced in the late 1950s, sanitariums were rarely needed. Consequently Oteen was converted in 1959 to a pulmonary and cardiac surgery center and the Sanitarium in Swannanoa was converted to other uses as well.
Asheville is still a health center where people come for specialized treatment. Mission-St. Joseph's Hospital and the many specialists located nearby have made Asheville the prime medical center for Western North Carolina. Also, the Asheville area is considered to be the “New Age Mecca of the East” by many people. The area boasts many massage therapists, acupuncturists and other alternative health care practitioners. The impact of, the growth and development of sanitariums and the medical community between 1870 and 1930 is clear; Asheville attracted many people who ended up staying and contributing to its architecture, civic arena and its sense of place.
Scott, Cuthbert. “The Climatic and Health-Giving Advantages of Western North Carolina: A Historical Survey” Asheville Citizen, October 20, 1929.
Stephens, Irby. “Asheville; The Tuberculosis Era,” North Carolina Medical Journal September, Vol 46, no. 9., 1985.