The Swedish National Sanatorium in Denver was a tuberculosis treatment center active throughout the 1900s. As tuberculosis swept the nation, thousands of consumptives turned to the dry mountain air of Colorado to alleviate their symptoms, and sanatoriums sprang up across the state. The Swedish National Sanatorium is an example of an ethnic sanatorium in the Denver community supported by Swedes across the country.
Tuberculosis, Denver, and the Swedes
Tuberculosis sanatoria sprang up around Denver at the end of the nineteenth century. Colorado’s sunlight and dry climate seemed to give sufferers moderate relief from their symptoms. Most sanatoria had open sun porches, and many housed some patients in canvas-sided tents or small cabins. Episcopal leaders, including the Reverend Bishop John Spalding, founder of St. Luke’s Hospital, opened the Oakes Home in the town of Highlands, west of Denver. The home took in patients who had a good chance of survival and who could pay the modest fee.
In the early 1900s, some 3–4,000 Swedes lived in Denver, with an estimated 12–15,000 living across the state. Many farmed or did other labor in Front Range towns such as Longmont, Lyons, and Loveland. Many also lived in Denver, including some successful business owners. Once in the United States, Swedes established churches, fraternal and women’s societies, and cultural organizations. These organizations reinforced their Swedish identity and helped them keep connections with Swedes across in the country.
Dr. Bundsen and the Ladies’ Aid Society
On March 13, 1905, a group of concerned Denver citizens led by Dr. Charles Bundsen founded the Swedish Consumptive Sanatorium. As a way of defraying start-up costs, each member bought shares in the charitable institution for one dollar each. In May John Newton informed the board that the Denver Swedish National Ladies’ Society was planning a picnic to benefit the proposed sanatorium. They hoped to raise $50,000 in pledges from attendees. Although they did not make their goal, they created an organization that would be a mainstay of the Swedish Consumptive Sanatorium for more than fifty years. In June 1905, the group renamed itself the Swedish Consumptive Ladies’ Aid Society, and in October the group announced plans for a second fund-raiser.
The pioneer leadership of the Society fell to two remarkable women. Alma Hendryson was born in Denver and attended Longfellow Elementary and East High Schools before rheumatic fever forced her to drop out. Charles Bundsen was her physician and friend. When he proposed building a sanatorium for patients with tuberculosis, it was she who gathered her friends in the Swedish National Ladies’ Society and began organizing. The other woman was Ragna Anderson. Born in 1868 near Oslo, Norway, Ragna Petersen came to Colorado in 1885, when she was seventeen years old. She married August Carlson in Denver two years later. After Carlson’s death from typhoid fever she married Anton Anderson, a contractor who built homes in the Capitol Hill and Park Hill neighborhoods. Ragna Anderson took on the presidency of the ladies’ aid society in 1911 and held the position until her death.
Reverend Nelson and Dr. John Lindahl established the Swedish-American Sanatorium, Bethesda, on five acres west of Denver, in Edgewater. Its board included a number of prominent Swedes. On July 10, 1906, the sanatorium accepted its first four patients, tended by matron Augusta Beckman. They housed the patients in cottages donated by friends of the association. The demand for tuberculosis care soon grew to the point that Bethesda added more cottages and fourteen more patients. In 1907 Bethesda hired the Reverend August A. Nordeen of Minneapolis as a field representative to solicit funds from Minnesota Swedes.
The Swedish Consumptive Sanatorium, meanwhile, began buying small cabins to replace the tents that most of its patients were living in. It took in many patients who were gravely ill and often had little or no money to their name, which meant that basic fees rarely covered the cost of care. During solicitation campaigns, Swedish Consumptive representatives asked churches and lodges to contribute funds in order to defray the care of their members should they become ill.
In 1907 fund-raising accelerated as the board continued to plan for the first permanent building at the sanatorium. In March the secretary filed amended incorporation papers to change the name from the Swedish Consumptive Sanatorium to the Swedish National Consumptive Sanatorium. The change reinforced the idea that the sanatorium served the national Swedish American population. At the new building’s dedication, Governor Henry Buchtel gave the keynote speech to a reported 15,000 attendees, who also learned that most of the bricks had been donated.
In 1908 the sanatorium hired Zelma Krantz, a nurse trained in Sweden, as head nurse and matron at a salary of thirty-five dollars per month. Matrons handled food preparation duties in addition to their obligations as head nurses. Krantz worked in the sanatorium until her death on the operating table during a surgery at Mercy Hospital. In 1908 the sanatorium also hired a housekeeper for thirty dollars per month, the same as the nurses’ pay.
In January 1907, Nelson had approached the Swedish Consumptive Sanatorium board to propose a merger with his Bethesda sanatorium. The board voted against the merger, but by March 1909, a merger seemed feasible. The new Swedish National Sanatorium would take over all land, buildings, and personal property of both organizations. The new partners decided that the Englewood land was the best site for the institution, since the building was well under way. They agreed to sell the Edgewater land to pay off the debts of both original organizations.
Development and Expansion
The Swedish National Sanatorium finally opened its first hospital building in 1909. It was a large brick stucco-covered house, initially with minimal facilities and equipment. It served as an administration building, as well as a patient ward, and provided staff housing, a kitchen, a dining room, a clinic, a laboratory, and a recreation room. The cottages supplied additional housing. In the first years, the grounds were bare and unlovely. Staff and volunteers planted trees, gardens, and bushes, but early photographs show grounds that were not particularly inviting. Still, the clear air and mountain views helped sell the institution as the staff worked to improve its surroundings. The park-like atmosphere that became a hallmark of the sanatorium came slowly over the next dozen years.
The institution’s greatest expenses were food, medicines, salaries, and coal or oil for the stoves in winter months. The institution bought many items on account and paid off debts a bit each month as donations trickled in. Dairy products, which formed the basis of a tuberculosis patient’s diet, came from Peterson’s Dairy and the Littleton Creamery. J. G. Baeschlin provided most farm products. In the first years, Krantz traveled to surrounding farms to buy eggs and other food. Vendors made deliveries after 1910. Most of the sanatorium’s income came from the work of field representatives who solicited the sponsoring denominations and lodges. In the first five years, many representatives worked the small towns of Colorado as well as communities in the Swedish strongholds of Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Illinois, Minnesota, and Texas.
In the late 1910s, an architect drew up plans for expansion of the sanatorium. The renderings showed six pavilions, but only three were built. The first opened in 1920. The walls of each room opened to allow a bed to be rolled out into the sunshine, greatly reducing the need for wheelchairs. The facility, in both function and structure, became the model for most future sanatorium buildings. By 1929, aggressive fund-raising campaigns had acquired enough money for another new building at the sanatorium: the Mayflower Pavilion. The two-story pavilion’s opening was the sanatorium’s big event of 1931. In the weeks before the dedication, grounds staff seeded a lawn between the new building and the Chicago Pavilion, planted pansies, and laid a graveled driveway to the building.
During World War II, the Swedish National Sanatorium opened its doors in conjunction with other area hospitals to care for wounded soldiers, and it made spaces available for meetings and classes of the First Aid and Home Defense Committees. Wartime shortages plagued the sanatorium. Unlike the Great Depression, when the missing resource was money, this time patients could afford to pay, but rationing made it significantly harder to get food and supplies. New patients arrived when military physicals caught young men in the early stages of tuberculosis. Industrial workers, under considerable strain themselves, also fell ill. In early 1943, an article published in England described research into a group of drugs that had given hope to dealing with infections. These sulpha drugs were derivatives of sulphanilamide, developed in Vienna in 1908. The article closed with the hope that there might soon be breakthroughs in drug treatment for tuberculosis. Charles Bundsen’s 1944 annual report praised the doctors who had stayed on during wartime, and he reported that while research had not proven that penicillin or sulpha drugs could help in tuberculosis cases, they were increasingly useful in treating the secondary infections that plagued the average tuberculosis patient.
In July 1959, the whole institution became the Swedish Medical Center, a reflection of the increasingly diverse set of services it provided to surrounding communities. The era of the Swedish National Sanatorium had come to an end. From this point on, the Swedish Medical Center would continue to grow and serve the surrounding south metro community. Over the years, it would pioneer many new programs and serve new audiences. The dream of Swedish community leaders in the early twentieth century had culminated in a medical center that could meet the challenges of the twentieth century and beyond.
Adapted from Rebecca Hunt, “Swedish National Sanatorium: Building Community in a Swedish-American Tuberculosis Sanatorium, 1905–1959,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 25, no. 3 (2005).