At the beginning of the 20th Century, a global public health crisis hit Chicago—a widespread outbreak of tuberculosis. The highly contagious respiratory disease spread easily from person to person and attacked the lungs. Without a vaccine or a cure, doctors attempted to treat positive cases with sunshine, fresh air and by quarantining the sick away from the general public. Chicagoans who couldn’t afford to go to a private facility were sent to the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium in Peterson Park, which back then was at the edge of the city.
At the age of 12, Lillie Campbell was taken away from her family and quarantined at the MTS, where she remained for three years in the 1950s. She’s now 74, and she says that experience stayed with her and even inspired her to go into the medical field.
While some Chicagoans are showing signs of quarantine fatigue after just two months under the Illinois stay-at-home order, Campbell recounts what it was like to live through the TB outbreak and how it has prepared her for the pandemic the world is living through today.
What follows is an edited transcript of Campbell’s recent interview with Curious City.
How did you find out you had TB?
It was a very ‘hush hush’ disease—you didn’t talk about it if you had it. You were considered very lowly, very unclean, like you were dirty. I think my teacher was one of the first people to begin to notice [I was sick] and they didn’t let me go back to school. The thing I do remember most was the doctor who treated me, and he said to my mother, ‘I’ve seen this before.’
My mother was just heartbroken. She didn’t cry, but she was very visibly shaken. [The doctor] let me spend one last night with my mother and my brothers and sisters. He explained to her that the whole family would have to be tested.
She had to bring me to [the sanitarium] that next morning. We didn’t talk the whole way. There was really nothing much to say.
What was it like to be in quarantine at the MTS?
I was there from when I was 12 until I was 15. I was isolated. You couldn’t go outside. Your nurses were afraid of you. They were very kind to me as long as my mother was standing there, but the moment she left, all hell broke loose. And we had to learn quickly—you’re on your own. And I had to realize that it’s either do or die.
You had to get cards that had certain color codes—like everybody strived to get a green one [because] that meant you could go outside. You could not socialize with other people, other children, so you grew up very fast.
What kept you going?
You know, I’ll never forget that my dad—he sent me a poem. It was called “If” by Ruyard Kipling. And he wrote it out by hand and I’ll never forget it. And it stuck with me.
If you can meet with triumph and disasters and treat those imposters just the same.
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting…or in being hated don’t give way to hating.
The whole thing was just encouraging, just the fact that he said don’t hate someone because they hate you, to take a disaster and make it the best that you can. The whole thing spoke to me because I needed encouragement. I needed to know that what I was going through wasn’t the end of me and I had to faith in what my parents had given me and have faith in God and to hold on. And I got through. So that part to me was crucial.
Given your experience, what advice do you have for people?
We’re acting like we’re in a barbaric age. We’re mad. We want to blame the mayors and the governors. We want to stand at city halls with guns.
You need to learn to sit quietly [and] just do what you need to do. This isn’t gonna last forever. It’s gonna get better. If you sit back and say, ‘OK. I’m in this. I don’t like it, but it’s gonna be okay. I just gotta hold on. I’m almost at the door … And after a while, we’ll be OK.’
This isn’t just the United States’ problem—this is the world’s problem. Wherever it came from, whoever started it … it doesn’t matter. What we have to do—and I firmly believe this—is to help each other … But that’s not what’s happening. It’s every man for himself. People saying, ‘well, I want to go outside. I’m tired of being cooped up. And then I want to go to work.’ So then when your child gets sick or your grandmother or your sister or brother, then, what are you going to do? There is no quick fix for this … But the bottom line is, yes, we should quarantine. We should understand that this is not something [officials are] trying to take from you … [they’re] trying to keep you from getting something. We’ve just got to be patient.
But we’ll never be the same. You’re never the same after a terrible illness or a problem or a hurt or loss. You’re never the same and you’re not supposed to be the same. That’s the point … But it’s all in how you allow it to change you.
The question that inspired this interview:
Curious City question asker Laurie Nayder was strolling through Peterson Park on the Northwest Side with a friend when they ran into a park staffer. The staffer took them on a tour around the park fieldhouse and shared that the building and grounds had once been home to the state’s largest tuberculosis sanitarium. Nayder wanted to know more about what went on inside the buildings still standing in the park today, so she asked Curious City about the history of the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium. We answered her question in this piece from 2018, based on the historical record and remembrances of several former patients, including Lillie Campbell.
Monica Eng is a WBEZ reporter. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.