Infamous Lung Block

The White Plague spread swiftly among the inhabitants of the Lung Block - adults and children alike. (John Spargo, "Bitter Cry of the Children," 1906. Source: National Library of Medicine)

“The White Plague spread swiftly among the inhabitants of the Lung Block—adults and children alike,” wrote John Spargo in 1906 in the “Bitter Cry of the Children.” (National Library of Medicine)

A square city block where TB ran rampant among recent immigrants at the turn of the last century

by Jana Schlütter

“No! Me die not yet at all! Me gotta bring de grub to ma chil,” the tubercular Italian protested when friends tried to make him stop working. It was around 1900, according to journalist Ernest Poole’s account, and the man, his wife and three children lived in a room in one of the worst tenements on the Lower East Side—a block between Catherine, Cherry, Hamilton and Market Streets so rife with tuberculosis that it was known as the Lung Block. About 4,000 recent immigrants from Italy, Ireland and 12 other nations crowded the tenement’s tiny rooms and hallways, “not to mention dogs, cats, parrots and one weakened old monkey,” Poole wrote. Even new arrivals knew about the stigma of the Lung Block. Only those who had no  choice moved in.

In 1903, Poole again visited the Lung Block, but could find little trace of the Italian family he had written about. “One afternoon he [the father] had a hemorrhage at work, and was brought home on a shutter. The ‘home’ broke up. I could find but one more item. The baby girl died last year of the Plague—tubercular meningitis—over on Randall’s Island,” he wrote in the Annual Report of the Charity Organization Society of the City of New York. “In a block so congested, the Plague spreads swiftly. In the past nine years alone, this block has reported two hundred and sixty-five cases. From doctors, druggists and others who know, I gathered that this is but half of the true number.”

At the time Poole wrote, New York City officials were energetically trying to curb the spread of TB in the Lung Block. Tuberculosis cases had to be registered as part of a surveillance system established in 1894 by Hermann A. Biggs, general medical officer of the Department of Health. As cases were plotted on disease maps, the Lung Block had quickly emerged as a primary hot spot. The tenement became a focus of one of the first multicultural American public health efforts. Flyers in different languages told the residents how the White Plague spread and how to prevent contagion. The pamphlets advised against spitting, smoking, or wearing long skirts that dragged on the ground, and they promoted the use of handkerchiefs. Health officials placed placards outside the apartments of the sick so other residents could stay away. A corps of trained nurses joined the medical officers who visited tuberculosis patients in their homes to “make record of the surroundings, mode of living, physical and financial condition, temperature, observance of instructions and of any special needs.” When rooms were vacated, they were routinely disinfected.

But the Lung Block was beyond hope. In the 1920s, the city finally tore it down.

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