Kentucky’s Hidden History: Tour a Cave That was Once Used as a Tuberculosis Sanatorium
In the 1800s tuberculosis was known as the "white plague" and one doctor attempted to create a sanatorium inside of Mammoth Cave.
The Longest Cave in the World
Kentucky's Mammoth Cave holds the title of the longest cave in the world, at 426 miles. If you laid the entire cave system out end to end it would stretch from Evansville and almost make it to Detroit Michigan (that's a whole lot of cave to explore)! It really is wild when you think about it, we've known about Mammoth Cave for years, and cave researchers are constantly learning more about this cave system and discovering new passageways within it.
The Tuberculosis Sanatorium Within Mammoth Cave
At one point in time, Mammoth Cave was actually used as an experimental Tuberculosis sanatorium. In a time when science was not sure how to treat tuberculosis effectively, one doctor thought the air down in the cave would be therapeutic for patients as many miners and visitors to the cave reported feeling "well" after being down in the cave.
According to the National Park Service, with hopes that the cave could be therapeutic for patients with tuberculosis, Dr. John Croghan purchased the property where Mammoth Cave is located and got to work on setting up a hospital. In 1842 16 patients took up residence inside of Mammoth Cave, by living inside of a series of buildings inside of the cave that were constructed by enslaved individuals.
Living within the cave, patients initially seemed to improve and Dr. Croghan enthusiastically began to draw up plans for a hotel to be established within the cave to house the anticipated masses that would flock to the cave for healing.
However, as winter progressed, it became clear that the dank, dark conditions worsened the patients’ symptoms. Smoke and ash from lard oil lanterns and a large fire used to light the cave continuously filled the chambers while the dampness of the air further degraded damaged lungs.
Unfortunately, five of the patients died inside the cave during the experiment, and later Dr. Croghan passed away from tuberculosis.
The experiment lasted no more than five months, from autumn 1842 to early 1843. While the cool cave setting conformed to the treatment standards of the times, the unventilated, damp environment made the disease worse. Like his patients, Dr. Croghan ultimately passed of tuberculosis in 1849.
So the next time you take a tour of Mammoth Cave, take a moment to think about Dr. Croghan and those 16 patients. You can read more about this fascinating piece of Mammoth Cave history on NPS.Gov. To this day you can still see some of the remenants of this time in history.