Self-Isolation Week 3: Remembering TB

WPA tuberculosis poster

Work Projects Administration (WPA) tuberculosis poster (1936-1941) Public Domain.

All the discussion around the recent corona virus pandemic and the fallout from it that’s affected hundreds of thousands in all parts of the world got me thinking about a disease that struck my own family and was treated in a very different manner. That would be tuberculosis, and many families around the world — and yes, here in Cape Breton — were faced with the drastic results of having a family member diagnosed with TB, as we came to know it. No dilly-dallying, if you were diagnosed, you were hospitalized, no questions asked!

Tuberculosis, according Stefan Grzyhowski and Edward A. Allen, came to America with the Europeans in the 1600s and naturally affected the Indigenous people. The disease spread gradually across Canada as the nation grew and became more connected, exposing more and more people to the illness. The mortality rate for TB in Canada fell from 180/100,000 in 1900 to less than 1/100,000 by the mid-’80s. In recent years, the rates have begun to creep up again — in 2017, the rate of active tuberculosis in Canada was 4.9/100,000 population — and 21.5/100,000 within the Indigenous population.

According to Grzyhowski and Allen, tuberculosis was “a social disease with a medical aspect.” Poor housing, overcrowding in many homes, inadequate nutrition, physical and mental stress, and a lack of qualified medical care were all considered factors in its spread.


I turned seven on 15 December 1944. Between that day and Christmas, our lives pretty well fell apart. I was watching our family doctor give my mother an injection to relieve her asthma, which quite often resulted in her gasping for breath. My father had just arrived home from his job at the CNR freight shed and he stood in the doorway between the kitchen and the “dining-room” watching what was going on. The doctor told my father that he had received the results of his tests, and my father replied “And I’ve got the bug.” I was to learn later on that it was a term used for tuberculosis.

I have to admit that I don’t recall any mention of sickness on his part before the announcement that day. He went to work every day and on payday gave his pay over to our mother who paid the bills and often gave him $2 for himself. He worked hard, especially during the winter months when he often worked outside, and while I came to know that some of his friends were diagnosed with TB around the same time, I had no idea at all as to what kind of sickness it was. The idea that he would be forced to go to hospital whether he chose to or not and that the rest of us would have to be tested for the disease came as a shock — we were never sick.

After having x-rays, I was told I would have to miss school for three weeks, which was not so bad as far as I was concerned. My father went to the “annex” in the City Hospital in Sydney where I learned TB patients were housed. I remember visiting him there once with my mother. Later, he was transferred to Point Edward where TB patients were housed and treated. My mother had to get the bus to visit my father and I went there only once.

My father was not happy in Point Edward but I often heard my mother talking about him “taking the cure” which meant rest, fresh air and good food. I do remember that he came home for Christmas in 1944 and that he would come home to vote during an election but would be picked up and driven back to Point Edward soon after. One of his letters indicates that he was home in Sydney in September of 1952 and back to work, but he was back at Point Edward in July of 1953.

Point Edward navy station which became a tuberculosis hospital post-WWII

Point Edward navy station which became a tuberculosis hospital post-WWII

I have no idea when he was transferred to Roseway Hospital in Shelburne, which he said, in another of his letters to my mother, had bars on the windows and was called a “gopher hole” by one of his fellow patients. A letter dated 2 March 1954 reveals that he went to the Kentville Sanitorium for surgery (no mention of the type of surgery), accompanied by a fellow patient, an orderly and a Mountie (!).

He also mentions that he had been in Kentville before. Apparently all surgeries took place in Kentville, and he was situated on the floor where surgeries were performed. I know he had ribs removed and a lung collapsed, and assume these surgeries took place in Kentville. I have since learned that surgeries were also performed at Point Edward or perhaps at one of our local hospitals – City Hospital or St. Rita’s.

On 25 April 1954, he wrote to my mother after she and my uncle Joe visited him in Kentville telling her how surprised and pleased he had been to see them. In the same letter, he mentioned not knowing for sure when his next surgery would be performed, but a telegram to my mother from a Dr. Quinlan on 30 April 1954 states that my father had had surgery that day and his condition was “satisfactory.” Little did my mother realize that her visit, earlier in April, would be the last time she would see him alive.


I don’t know how my mother managed on $90 a month to feed and clothe six of us and herself, when the rent for our cold apartment was $20 a month. When our father was moved to Roseway in Shelburne, she had no way to visit him; although she did have a CNR pass, she had no money with which to pay for an overnight stay or meals.

The years went by, and while we were lucky to have grandparents who were very good to us, and a brother who left school to work and try to assist my mother financially, life was always a struggle to buy coal for our two stoves — one in the dining-room and, of course, the kitchen stove for cooking. We were regular recipients of food baskets and toys from local charitable organizations at Christmas, as well as from our grandparents and uncles and aunts. We were accustomed to making do with less than many of our neighbors.

We also had visits from government employees checking to make sure my mother was not working, which would have meant losing her Mothers’ Allowance. I recall one of these people noticing our new fridge which, as my mother told her, my brother had purchased with his own money. It wasn’t uncommon in those days to have certain neighbors report anyone on government assistance for earning a few extra dollars. We were often subjected to taunts from the neighbors’ kids, calling to us that we had TB, but I don’t recall any lasting effects from it. However, I know my mother was very upset when one of her friends told her that she wouldn’t be visiting anymore since her husband was convinced she would bring the sickness back to their household.


I believe that not having our father at home with us led to my brothers losing interest in school, although my mother tried to encourage them. In the end, I was the only one to graduate from high school, until our youngest sister did quite a few years later, but my father, who always showed great interest in how I was doing and wrote to me to encourage me, didn’t live to see me graduate — he died in June of 1954, as I was completing Grade 11, just shy of his 44th birthday. Our mother had received a call from the hospital a few days before his death, telling her that she should come as soon as she could, but although she and our grandfather traveled by train (on CNR passes) they arrived too late, my father had passed away from pneumonia.

He had spent almost 10 years in various hospitals, and I often heard my mother say that he had been used as a guinea pig. In another letter, he mentions receiving a shot of “strip” a reference to streptomycin, which was to cure many patients of tuberculosis, but it would seem that he was past the stage where it might have helped him. He did say how it “knocked the good out of him on the day he received it” indicating to me that this wasn’t his first injection.

Aerial View Kentville Sanitorium,

Kentville Sanitorium and area. (Richard McCully Aerial Photograph Collection, NS Archives, 1931)

In response to a letter from our mother requesting information on exactly what had transpired after his surgery, the Provincial Superintendent of Nurses, Adelaide Munro, wrote to her on 12 July 1954 that she doubted our father “realized how seriously ill he was.” Why that would be so is just another mystery.

I remember vividly the morning we received the news of our father’s death – my uncle, who had also made the trip to Kentville to visit our father, came to the door early in the morning to tell us. He then left us to our own devices. I realized, years afterwards, that he had no idea how to handle the situation.

Admittedly, our father, although he was a prolific letter-writer and always asked after us, had become almost a stranger to us. My own memories include one that involved at least four of us sitting on his lap and on the arms of a large rocking chair, while music played on the record player. He loved piano music and would sing along with Fats Waller, his shortness of breath one sign of his illness that I recall. Another lasting memory is of hearing him, before his diagnosis, rising early to get ready for work and making a fire in the kitchen stove to warm the house, after which he would pull a kitchen chair from near the table, kneel down and say his prayers, a habit his mother had encouraged in him.

As I grew older, married and had children of my own, I often thought of my mother and realized how little thought I had given to the hardship she faced having her husband of eight years sick and confined to hospital for 10 years. She turned 40 six months after his death. Questions as to why he never did recover from tuberculosis — although I remember my mother telling us about the discovery of streptomycin —  faded after a few years, but I would often think of him dying in Kentville, alone with no family around him. It was years later, on the day, in fact, that I married in 1963, that a friend’s brother who had been a patient in Kentville told me that he had seen my father and had spent time with him. It provided comfort to realize that at least one familiar face was there when we were not.



Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.