University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Cave Air: Mammoth Cave’s Tuberculosis Patients

The Bottomless Pit in Mammoth Cave, Woodcut, 1887

The Bottomless Pit in Mammoth Cave, Woodcut, 1887
Wikipedia Commons.

Mammoth Cave, in the hills of Kentucky, is the longest cave in the world–more than 350 miles long and 379 feet deep. Much of it has still not been explored. In its long and varied history, it has been a home to indigenous people, a ceremony hall, a church, a saltpeter mine, and a tourist attraction. It also served as a hospital for a brief time. For many years visitors had reported feelings of well being after being exposed to the cave’s unique environment. Some considered its steady temperature, constant humidity, and dry air to be restorative. When Dr. John Croghan, a tuberculosis sufferer himself, purchased the cave in 1839, he set to work to make it a tourist attraction. Roads, buildings, and a large hotel were constructed around the cave. After hearing repeated praise for the quality of air in the cave, and feeling better himself for all the time he spent underground, Dr. Croghan decided to open a TB hospital.

Several small stone buildings with canvas roofs were erected inside the cave, far from the air and light of the outside world. Many of patients who came to Mammoth Cave stayed only for a few months before leaving, others stayed until their deaths. The smoke and ash from the large, greasy fire used to light the hospital area and smoke from the lard oil lanterns carried by the patients made their conditions worse. Morale in the still, lightless atmosphere was low. The experiment lasted only four to five months. One patient, Oliver Hazard Perry Anderson, wrote:

I left the cave yesterday under the impression that I would be better out than in as my lungs were constantly irritated with smoke and my nose offended by a disagreeable effluvia, the necessary consequence of its being so tenanted without ventilation.

 

Dr. Croghan himself died of tuberculosis in 1849 and the cave was sold. The stone cubicles of the TB hospital can still be seen in Mammoth Cave.

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