St. Luke's Hospital started as a colony for TB patients.

Camp Consumption

Written by Faith Miller Category: History Issue: April 2016
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“What seems a kind of temporal death to people choked between walls and curtains, is only light and living slumber to the man who sleeps afield. All night long he can hear Nature breathing deeply and freely; even as she takes her rest, she turns and smiles.”

So wrote acclaimed novelist – and tuberculosis sufferer – Robert Louis Stevenson, after staying at a camp for TB patients in the Phoenix area called The Desert Inn, sometime in the early 1890s. Stevenson was one of thousands of tuberculosis convalescents who sought respite in the sunny climate of the Southwest in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many such “health seekers,” including Stevenson, were happy living in tents and tiny bungalows if it meant their symptoms could be alleviated.

The Desert Inn, described as a “haven of rest on the highway to health” in an advertising pamphlet from 1910, was a 100-acre tuberculosis treatment facility established in 1890. It offered medical services, recreational activities, and two-room cottage bungalows for patients suffering from the “White Plague” – a colloquial term for tuberculosis that referred to the extreme pallor of those affected.

Other prominent destinations for “health seekers” included Sunnyslope, founded in 1911 by Alice and William Norton as a place for both invalids and healthy settlers; and St. Luke’s Sanatorium (pictured above), founded in Phoenix in 1907 by the Rev. Julius W. Atwood.

When St. Luke’s first opened, it consisted of 12 tents with the capacity to house 20 tuberculosis patients. By 1919, it accommodated up to 80 patients at a time, contained two specialized laboratories and treated multiple respiratory diseases. The medical center underwent major expansions in the mid-20th century, changing its name to St. Luke’s Hospital and adding the practice of general medicine. Today, the hospital has more than 400 beds, a behavioral health center and an expansive emergency department.