Adirondack Daily Enterprise, February 6, 2007
A Most Critical Transition: the End of the TB Era
On Oct. 12, 1954, devastating news hit Saranac Lake: After 70 years of operation as the foundation of this community's unique "industry" — treatment and research in tuberculosis — Trudeau Sanatorium was to close on Dec. 1.
Dr. Gordon Meade, director of the Trudeau-Saranac Institute, made the announcement after he had informed all members of the staff. "Studies Of Lung Diseases Will Be Continued In S.L." read a hopeful, mitigating headline. The future of Saranac Lake hung by a thread, and the actions of two men would make all the difference to the future of this community.
Closure of the sanatorium should not have been a complete surprise, but the community had optimistically ignored the fact that the work done here had contributed to successful treatment for T.B. — treatment that did not require long stays in sanatoria, away from home. Though in hindsight it appears that the development of drug treatments caused the closing, it was only one of the reasons given by Dr. Meade. The death rate had declined, and consequently so had the patient census at Trudeau. Though economy measures had been taken for a year to quell the steadily mounting deficit, Meade remarked, the decline had begun four years before and reached serious proportions within two years.
"In the light of these changes, we cannot justify keeping our patient facilities open," he said. Wrote the Enterprise: "Dr. Meade made it clear that tuberculosis had not yet been completely conquered but that, 'as far as the treatment is concerned, we feel that we have made our maximum contribution.'"
Sudden unemployment of 125 workers at Trudeau — about 5 percent of Saranac Lake's total workforce — was just the tip of the iceberg. The availability of drug treatment for TB without the need for long stays in a sanatorium would continue to have spin-off effects for many years afterward as the community struggled to reinvent itself — a struggle which is still going on.
Approximately 30 patients still at Trudeau were helped to relocate. The symbolic last patient was the celebrated baseball player Larry Doyle, star of the New York Giants, who had been there for 12 years and who went to live at Northwoods cottage on Church Street (on the site of the Paul Smith's College dormitory). Next to last was Sam Cosenza, who returned to his home in Brooklyn.
The problem of the $2,000,000 Trudeau property, with its 52 buildings, remained.
On April 2, 1956, after hope for a connection with the Mellon Institute was dashed — a hope in which everyone involved had invested seven months "during which, for understandable and justifiable reasons, no other proposal for the use of the Trudeau facilities was either sought or considered" — it was back to the drawing board.
"Dr. Frank Trudeau, in making this sad announcement, has also announced a magnificent personal gesture: his temporary retirement from medical practice to give this Trudeau problem his full-time attention," the Enterprise editorialized. "We consider this his way of saying that, as the grandson of the founder of the institution, as the son of its former president, and as a native son of Saranac Lake, he intends to make every conceivable effort to find a solution for both the institution and the community." Indeed he did. One of the issues was that use of the $3,000,000 endowment was restricted. Many of the 52 buildings had endowments limited to their support. Dr. Frank Trudeau's task was to convince each donor or his heirs to release his individual endowment to a new general fund. To determine an appropriate new use for the fund, he consulted nationally prominent scientists in New York. With these difficult decisions before him, Dr. Trudeau's efforts were further complicated by the sudden death on July 19 of his father, Dr. Francis Berger Trudeau Sr., who was boating near his camp on Upper St. Regis Lake when he succumbed to a heart attack.
Despite the optimistic headline of 1954, there had been no guarantee that the laboratories would remain here. The board was reported to be "considering an offer to join with a group near Yonkers and to move everything including the staff and endowment. Local citizens and medical groups protested and a decision on this question was deferred for six months while further study is made."
"A few quiet, persuasive words" from an unsung hero "turned the tide at a time of crisis in the community's life" and saved the laboratories for Saranac Lake. "When the Trudeau Foundation Board seemed on the verge of closing not only the sanatorium in Saranac Lake, but also the research laboratories, and transferring funds of over $3,000,000 to another institution in a metropolitan center,"George LaPan's plea "that the recommendation of eminent scientists be followed and that the labs be left in Saranac Lake led to a one-vote victory for his point of view. The labs are still here," the Enterprise editorialized.
At long last, good news was trumpeted on Jan. 30, 1957, when the sale of the Trudeau Sanatorium property to the American Management Association was authorized. AMA's plan was to establish an educational and research center here. Dr. Frank Trudeau had succeeded in finding a new owner for the property that would replace many of the jobs lost when the sanatorium closed. The board also approved "reorganization and expansion" of the research work being done at the two laboratories in Saranac Lake.
Long years of hard work and worry by Dr. Frank Trudeau — and George LaPan's persuasive word at the right time — made all the difference in the world to the future of Saranac Lake. In the next decade, proceeds from the sale of the sanatorium would be reinvested here in the form of Trudeau Institute, a welcome new institution that built on the community's strengths, one which maintains Saranac Lake's prominence in the world of medical research still today.
A young Dr. Francis B. Trudeau Jr., grandson of Dr. E.L. Trudeau, looks hugely relieved as he signs the papers finalizing the transfer of the old Trudeau Sanatorium to the American Management Association, thereby preventing what could have been an economic disaster for Saranac Lake in the wake of the San's closure.
(Photo No. 83.63 courtesy of the Adirondack Room of the Saranac Lake Free Library)