Tackling a Scourge…. Cassadaga’s Newton Memorial Hospital


aerial view towards lake

Article Contributed by
Patricia Pihl

From 1919 to 1958, Newton Memorial Hospital treated adults and children at its hilltop location overlooking Cassadaga Lake with the only known treatments for tuberculosis – bed rest, good nutrition, fresh air and sun exposure.
Mandates required counties across the state to build sanitaria to treat the growing numbers afflicted with the disease. Newton, however, stands out due to the significant contributions of Dr. Walter Rathbun, a pioneer who endorsed the use of x-ray machines for early diagnosis and treatment.
A medical graduate of Yale University, Rathbun started working at Newton in 1922. Previously, he observed that World War I soldiers – many seemingly healthy men – tested positive for tuberculosis without having any of the disease’s characteristic symptoms, including fever, coughing and weakness. The disease, also known as consumption and the white plague, would not be under control until the discovery of streptomycin in the 1940s.
Rathbun would become a strong advocate for the use of the newest technology, the portable x-ray machine, for use in local schools to spot the cloudy masses indicating the disease.
Due to his diligence, Chautauqua County historian Michelle Henry says, “every single child in school received an chest x-ray, which not only identified kids who were underdeveloped, but also those who were healthy who contracted the disease.”
This was critical because when children contracted non-life threatening tuberculosis, the disease would leave scarring in their lungs which predisposed them to developing full-blown pulmonary tuberculosis as adults.
Henry notes that in 1928, Newton would become the largest children’s summer camp in the state. Ten children’s cabins were built at the site with the help of private donations. “It just shows how people were personally affected by TB,” says Henry, noting that $150,000 was donated by Elizabeth Newton of Fredonia to build the hospital when she died in 1909. Newton’s son, Harry, was a doctor who died from the disease at age 24.
According to the county historian, admission to Newton and disease testing was voluntary, although not everyone sought treatment or testing. She adds that there was no indication from Rathbun’s reports that quarantine was required for TB patients and people could leave the hospital voluntarily. Clinics also existed in Jamestown and Dunkirk, but many weren’t tested, Henry says, because of the stigma associated with the disease.
Newton’s admissions increased from 40 patients to full capacity at 82 –with Dr. Rathbun’s advocacy – before eventually closing in 1958.
Henry says after the hospital closed, medical records were handed over to the department of health, and were probably destroyed during a huge purge during the 1950s. Census figures from decades when the hospital was in operation may give some insight into its patients who were there, however.
Patricia Pihl is a personal historian and founder of Real Life Legacies, which helps individuals and families preserve their story in print format. First person narratives and family histories are important historical documents. For more information, visit www.reallifelegacies.com or call 753-0987. To read more of Patricia’s contributions, please search the Jamestown Gazette’s archives.