In the early 1900s, Rhode Island was in the grip of a deadly epidemic – the great white plague. Each year, thousands of Americans died from tuberculosis; for children under the age of five, the disease was one of the top ten causes of death. Highly contagious, tuberculosis spread rapidly through crowded urban tenements in cities like Providence. Early tuberculosis symptoms overlapped with many other diseases – fever, weight loss and lack of appetite, fatigue – but as the disease progressed, the most identifiable feature was a persistent cough. By the time a patient was coughing up blood and sputum they were highly infectious. In particular, children, living and interacting with infected adults, were at great risk of contracting the disease themselves.
Sanatoriums for tuberculosis patients sprang up across the country. In Rhode Island, adults with active tuberculosis were sent to a clinic at Wallum Lake in Burrillville. Initially, no provisions were made for children who had been exposed to the disease but were not actively infectious. A Providence Journal reporter noted: “We have no proper hospital accommodations for tubercular children under 14 years. They must, therefore, remain in their tenement homes regardless of the lack of good food, fresh air, and proper care. The need for an all-year-round home for crippled and debilitated children is great. Perhaps no one knows this better than the tuberculosis worker.” Without careful medical supervision and a healthy diet, exposed children’s chances of developing active tuberculosis dramatically increased.
In 1912, the Providence League for the Suppression of Tuberculosis finally addressed this issue, opening a “preventorium” at the Lakeside Home in Warwick. At this bucolic location, tubercular children were treated to a regime of fresh air and exercise. During the summer, children slept on open-air sleeping porches and spent their days playing outside. The children even received their schooling outside, using an open air shelter as their classroom for all but the bitterest days of winter. Only when the “rosy cheeks and cheery voices of the children denote[d] returning strength and vigor” were they sent back to their homes in the city.
A regiment of doctors and nurses supervised the children at the Preventorium. With neither an inoculation nor a cure for tuberculosis, doctors focused on improving the children’s overall physical well-being. Many of the children arrived at the Preventorium underweight for their age. After several months of care on the Preventorium’s simple, wholesome diet, children often found themselves sprouting up overnight, returning home several inches taller.
Two other groups of underprivileged children were also accommodated at the Lakeside Home, strictly isolated from the potentially infectious children of the Preventorium. Each week during the summer, a repurposed Red Cross ambulance stopped at the Quaker Meeting House in downtown Providence. Families gathered at the site hoping that their children might be approved for a vacation at the Lakeside Home. Children who passed the medical inspection piled into the ambulance with their luggage – by a dint of “scientific packing,” the ambulance could accommodate thirty-five children. At the Lakeside Home, these children from Providence’s urban core enjoyed several weeks of swimming, hiking, and playing games. Year round, the Lakeside Home also accommodated a small number of children who were convalescing from illnesses or operations.
Through the 1940s, The Lakeside Home continued to offer itself as a center for convalescents. However, children’s hospitals and better medical services slowly changed the face of medical care in Rhode Island. By the 1950s, modern antibiotics could now effectively treat and cure tuberculosis. The Preventorium grew obsolete.
On September 19, 1950, the Providence Tuberculosis League ended their operation of the Lakeside Home and Preventorium, transferring the property to Children’s Friend and Service for operation as a temporary shelter for homeless or neglected children.