Tuberculosis and the Politics of Exclusion: A History of Public Health and Migration to Los Angeles

Tuberculosis and the Politics of Exclusion: A History of Public Health and Migration to Los Angeles

Tuberculosis and the Politics of Exclusion: A History of Public Health and Migration to Los Angeles

Tuberculosis and the Politics of Exclusion: A History of Public Health and Migration to Los Angeles

Synopsis

Though notorious for its polluted air today, the city of Los Angeles once touted itself as a health resort. After the arrival of the transcontinental railroad in 1876, publicists launched a campaign to portray the city as the promised land, circulating countless stories of miraculous cures for the sick and debilitated. As more and more migrants poured in, however, a gap emerged between the city's glittering image and its dark reality.

Excerpt

Arriving in Los Angeles in the early 1930s, “noir” writer Louis Adamic found sickness everywhere. Unlike his native Slovenia, where “good health was the rule, rather than the exception … and so there was little interest in it,” the Southern California city had so many invalids that health was “the leading topic of conversation.” Adamic's primary goal was to debunk the myths circulated by city boosters. Although notorious for its polluted air today, Los Angeles once billed itself as a health resort, especially for people with “lung troubles.” Soon after the arrival of the transcontinental railroad in 1876, publicists had launched a massive crusade to portray the metropolis as the promised land and circulated countless stories of miraculous cures. A poem in one of the first issues of a prominent booster journal claimed that “pleasure, toil, and rest, alike bestow/On mind and body—the vigor, strength, and health.” The author of a prize-winning letter published in the journal had come to Los Angeles “a physical wreck—pale, haggard, and debilitated,” but had quickly “been restored” and was now “simply robust.”

Adamic was hardly the first to emphasize the enormous gap between the city's glittering image and its darker reality. Because the inflated booster rhetoric promised more than could possibly be delivered, the city soon contained an unusually large proportion of sick and dying people. Tuberculosis (or consumption, as it was often called) was especially prevalent. The most fearsome disease of the time, TB is an ancient scourge which we now know is caused by the tubercle bacillus. A latent form of disease develops as soon as the microbe enters the body; active illness is most likely to occur in bodies weakened by inadequate diets, other health problems, stress, and poor living conditions. At the turn . . .

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