The Case of Lena

History provides context for understanding.  We are so far removed from the daily life struggles of 100 years ago and our own experiences are so very different that it is difficult for us to develop a clear understanding of  why events unfolded the way that they did.

Occupational therapy is a health related profession that was born from the crucible of American society and culture at the turn of the 20th century.  As such, events from those times greatly influenced the thinking of our primary founders.

George Edward Barton lived in Clifton Springs in Ontario County on the street behind the Clifton Springs Sanitarium (private) which had a capacity of 400 patients.  The Ontario County Sanitorium for Consumptives (Oak Mount) was the public facility, previously known as the County 'Poor House' in nearby East Bloomfield and had a capacity of around 40 patients.

Barton was motivated by realities of the public health crisis of tuberculosis.  He was motivated because of living in the shadow of the Clifton Springs Sanitarium, and by the stories that he read in his local paper (below), and by the reality that he was also afflicted with this terrible disease.

Understanding Barton's motivations yields important information about his values and beliefs and the 'cure' that he believed could be achieved through occupation.  This reprinted article is an exemplar of daily struggles that people had at the time, and subsequent blog entries will outline his specific response to this newspaper article.

Reprinted from the Geneva Daily Times, Friday January 16, 1920.

That morning the Teacher had sent Lena home from school.  Coming in from the cold air, the child's cough had been worse than ever, and the Teacher had said: "You better go home.  And don't come back till your cold is better.  It is not safe for the others."

All the rest of the morning and while she ate her hasty boarding house dinner, the Teacher had been haunted by the look in Lena's blue eyes.  There had been something she had wanted to say and couldn't.  So much at least was clear; and the teacher determined to take the long walk down to Lena's street after school and see her mother.  She remembered that the child had had a cold ever since the chilly autumn day when she had come to school with wet feet and had a chill.

Lena herself opened the door.  The same frightened look came to her eyes.  She said her mother was out working but would be back about five.  Yes, the Teacher could come in and wait.  After some hesitation she led the way to a back room.  "Pa's in here.  You can come in.  We've got a boarder in the parlor."

The room was small and clean.  It served, one could see for living room, kitchen, and dining room.  A hot fire burned in the stove and near it is a rocking chair sat the shadow of a man, who coughed, much as Lena coughed.

The Teacher sat down and the father told her how he had to give up work, and how his wife had to go out now.  He asked if the Visiting nurse had sent her there.  She replied that she was Lena's teacher.  At that he seemed relieved.  He said the Nurse had wanted him to go away to Oak Mount, but he loved his family and did not want to leave home.  He like ma's cooking better than any other too.

"But we get's on fine and dandy," chimed in Lena.  "We rent the parlor to Mr. Kominsky and two ladies that works at the factory rooms in the back room.  We could of got fifty cents more a week for the front room but we couldn't get both the beds and the crib in the back one."

Just then the back door opened and Lena's mother came in.  She was as neat as Teutonic as her little daughter, than whom no more loyal American ever saluted the flag.

Awkwardly she returned the Teacher's greeting.  The same frightened look came into her eyes when she was told that Lena must stay away from school until her cough was better.

"I'm sorry" the Teacher began, when Lena's mother rose and went into the front hall.  She beckoned to the Teacher and then shut the door.  "Did you come here from the Board of Health?" she asked.


"You can see how pa is," she returned.  "But he does want to stay home with me."

"But aren't you all sleeping in the same room?"

"Honest, lady, it's the only way we can get along.  You ain't going to report it, are you?  Oscar's well of his cold now."

"Who is Oscar?"

"He's my baby.  He's two.  Mrs. Schmitt, she take care of him when I'm away.  He's awful cute."

"May I see your room?"

"Sure.  But you won't report him?"

"Not now," and the Teacher followed up the stairs.

It was too terribly true.  One room.  One window.  Two beds under the sloping roof.  Oscar's crib between.  All neat and clean.

"Your husband is so ill.  It is not safe to have Lena here.  Will you let me send her to the hospital?" asked the Teacher.

"Hospital?"  She might as well have said "Prison."  The look of terror, dispelled for a moment by pride in her beautiful white beds, returned.

"I know the people there.  They will take care of Lena if there is room and I think there is.  And they will be so kind to her.  She will have good food and can stay there until a better place for children can be provided."

"Mein Gott.  I don't want Lena go away.  She's just a little keed."  Tears were rolling down the weary face.

"But it isn't right to expose her."

"I don't want her to get sick.  But honest, lady, I keep pa very clean."

"I know you do."

"But you won't tell about my baby?"

"Not now if you will promise Lena can go to the hospital."

"Lena did want to keep on learnin.  She's most fourteen.  She could get an elegant place at the five and ten."

"If you let her go and get well, she can go back to school next year."

So Lena is with the other children at the hospital in the contagious building.

But what about Oscar?

And what about all the other children in Ontario County who should be removed from infection, or who already have the dreadful disease, and who can be cured if you "do it now?"


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