A Mass Crusade Against Tuberculosis

  • Medicine & Health
  • 1908

In the first decade of the twentieth century, tuberculosis accounted for about 11 percent of all U.S. deaths. About a quarter of all children were afflicted in cities like New York. Around the middle of that decade, a popular movement arose that convinced millions of small donors to give money to battle the disease. At Christmastime in 1908, a campaign was launched to sell, for pennies, “seals” that could be used to decorate letters, with all the money raised going to the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis, newly founded that same year. The holiday campaign raised $135,000 (the equivalent of several million dollars today). By 1916 this small-scale giving was bringing in more than a million dollars, and by the mid-1960s $26 million.

The mass givers were joined by a few wealthy philanthropists. The Russell Sage Foundation, for instance, which was founded in 1907, made tuberculosis one of its main targets during its early years. The Saranac Sanitarium in New York’s Adirondack Mountains was one of several projects they helped bankroll. John Rockefeller and his charities eventually joined the fight.

But it was mostly small givers and volunteers who elevated the war on TB. Between 1904 and 1916 the number of TB clinics in the nation jumped from 18 to 1,324. The National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis organized an “army” of 500,000 Americans at peak times of the year to raise funds for sanitariums, medical research, and relief for afflicted families and individuals. Eventually the development of antibiotics made tuberculosis a less pressing concern. The “people’s philanthropy” launched against this frightening disease became the model, however, for subsequent popular crusades against polio, cancer, heart disease, and other medical scourges.

  • Olivier Zunz, Philanthropy in America (Princeton University Press, 2011), pp. 46-52