By the 1880s, scientists had determined that tuberculosis was a contagious disease, and this led to the need to place those suffering from the illness in institutions where they could receive proper care.
Monrovia, with its year-round mild temperatures and dry climate, provided an ideal location to help nineteenth century sufferers of this ailment seek a cure. The story of how Monrovia became world famous as a center for the treatment of tuberculosis is largely the story of one man.
Dr. Frances Marion Pottenger was born and educated in Ohio, receiving his M.D. degree and graduating with the highest honors in his class. It was after Dr. Pottenger’s wife died of tuberculosis in 1898, three years after she developed the disease, that he decided to take up the study of TB as his life’s work.
He returned to Monrovia where he had lived when his wife had first become sick, and on December 5, 1903, he opened the Pottenger Sanitorium for Diseases of the Lungs and Throat, located in the 500-600 blocks of Charlotte Avenue (now Canyon Boulevard) and occupying 40 acres. Originally, the institution housed 11 patients but was expanded to care for 134 patients.
Dr. Pottenger lived on the grounds of the sanatorium, and in the first ten years of the sanatorium’s existence he treated over 1,500 patients. Perhaps the institution’s most famous patient was silent screen actress Mabel Normand, who died of tuberculosis at the sanatorium in 1930 at the age of 37.
Dr. Pottenger eventually became one of the leading lung specialists in Southern California, and one of the world’s leaders and pioneers in the fight against tuberculosis. Because of his commitment to his work, the Pottenger Sanatorium was one of the most famous institutions devoted to the treatment of diseases of the lungs. He believed that isolating the patient from the world outside and giving the patient fresh air with easy access to a physician provided the best chance for combating the disease.
The sanatorium was closed in 1955 when Dr. Pottenger, who was 88 years old at the time, retired. He died in 1967. For about the next 20 years, the land was leased to the Carmelite Order as a convent and retreat. Sometime in the 1970s the land was sold and became the housing development known as Canyon Crest. Today nothing remains of the sanatorium’s buildings. However, the existence of numerous postcards circulated at the time provides images of how the facility appeared.
Approximately one-third of the world’s population today is thought to be infected with mycobacterium tuberculosis, with only 5-10% of the U.S. population testing positive for TB. While most infections in humans are latent, if the disease progresses to an active state, it can kill more that 50% of its victims if not treated. But, in part, because of Dr. Pottenger’s efforts in this area, tuberculosis is not the killer it once was.