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The Children’s Preventorium of Ramsey County

As its name suggests, the purpose of the preventorium was to prevent disease — in this case, tuberculosis.

Patients of the Children’s Preventorium of Ramsey County fishing on Lake Owasso.
Patients of the Children’s Preventorium of Ramsey County fishing on Lake Owasso.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

In 1915 the leading cause of death in Ramsey County (in Minnesota and the United States, too) was tuberculosis, a disease spread from person to person. In St. Paul about one third of the victims were women of childbearing age and people under age 20. It was a disease of the home.

Tuberculosis (TB) then had no cure and no effective treatment. About half of those afflicted died. While physicians searched for a cure, public health officials worked on prevention. The preventorium, as its name implies, was designed to stop tuberculosis among some children before it started. In this era Minnesota built many tuberculosis sanatoriums for the treatment of people ill with TB. And though the Preventorium arose from the same public health concerns as the sanatoriums, and used some of the same methods, there was an essential difference. Sanatoriums were for the sick. No sick children were allowed into the preventorium — it was for healthy children only.

Admission to the preventorium was always voluntary and free. In many cases the children’s families had been touched by a tuberculosis death. Starting in 1926 admission required a referral, usually from a public health worker. More than 60 families sent three or more children to the preventorium, and one sent nine. The great majority of children came from working-class or poor families.

Preventorium residents slept in outdoor sleeping porches and dressed year-round in oversized diapers known as drapes. They got two hours of schooling daily and two sessions of “heliotherapy,” that is, outdoor sun baths in warm weather, sun lamps in cold weather. The children spent as much time outdoors as the preventorium’s staff could arrange: sunlight and fresh air were believed to have powers over tuberculosis.

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Time spent in the preventorium ranged from one day to more than nine years, with the average stay about 30months. Many children stayed four years or longer. It was preventorium policy to release children only when its staff judged their families ready to receive them.

The preventorium was run mostly by women. From 1916 to 1953 it had one resident director, Margaret Weikert. Teachers, nurses, and social workers were all women. Lena Yugend was its chief social worker during the preventorium’s formative years. Together they created an institution with many modern features: detailed record-keeping, systematic follow-up, and a student-centered schooling system.

The original buildings were all wood and not well designed for a modern residential facility. In April 1927 a fire damaged the main building and killed a St. Paul firefighter. This event provoked a great outpouring of support and money, which enabled the preventorium to build a modern, brick main building that opened in 1928.

Though African Americans, nationwide and in Ramsey County, died of tuberculosis at seven times the rate of Euro-Americans, between 1915 and 1950, only one African American child was admitted. She soon died of tuberculosis. By contrast, between 1926 and 1953 some 57 Spanish-surnamed children were admitted.

MNopedia logoBy the mid-1930s most public health experts had concluded that the preventorium model had no effect on rates of TB infection among children. By this time also, tuberculosis death rates, in Ramsey County and elsewhere, had fallen to half the rate of 1915. The preventorium nevertheless continued admitting children and made no changes in its methods. Average stays for residents tended to get longer.

Medical science had never found an effective treatment for tuberculosis until the isolation of streptomycin in 1943. In 1948, Joan Rose Danielson, a preventorium resident, became the first Minnesotan to receive streptomycin treatment (but she stayed in the preventorium for nearly four more years). By 1950 demand for beds at The Preve (as it was called) had so fallen that it began admitting infants and children with active cases. Ancker Hospital, Ramsey County’s public hospital, took it over in 1950. It closed in 1953.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.