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Loomis: The Man, the Sanitarium and the Search for the cure

John Conway
Posted 6/14/24

In June of 1896, the face of Sullivan County was changed forever, as the Loomis Memorial Sanitarium for Consumptives just outside Liberty admitted its first 12 patients.

The original five …

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Loomis: The Man, the Sanitarium and the Search for the cure


In June of 1896, the face of Sullivan County was changed forever, as the Loomis Memorial Sanitarium for Consumptives just outside Liberty admitted its first 12 patients.

The original five buildings of the Sanitarium included an imposing three story administration building endowed by J.P. Morgan, a stone casino building endowed by Mrs. George Lewis, and three individual cottages.

The Sanitarium was the brainchild of Dr. Alfred Lebbeus Loomis, who had become one of America’s most prominent doctors before his death in January of 1895, a full year-and-a- half before his long-anticipated dream of a place to treat tuberculosis climatologically became a reality.

Loomis was born in Bennington, Vermont in 1831. His father, Daniel, was a cotton merchant there, and served for a time as postmaster. Daniel Loomis died of tuberculosis in 1833. In fact, there was much tuberculosis in the Loomis family, and young Alfred developed an early interest in medicine because of his own weak lungs. As a child, he was convinced he would not live past age 30, for most of his family had not, and although he did considerably better than that, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1867.

After a sojourn in the Adirondacks restored his health, he became persuaded of the curative powers of the forested mountain air, and devoted himself to the study of respiratory problems. Thereafter, he spent at least two months of every year in the Adirondacks and became an enthusiastic champion of preserving the region’s woodlands as a “natural sanitarium.”

Loomis had graduated from Union College in 1850, and the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1852, and became a practicing physician in New York, treating consumptives in the charity hospitals on Wards and Blackwell’s Islands.  He was eventually appointed to the staff at both Bellevue and Mount Sinai Hospitals.

Loomis authored a number of books - including “Lessons in Physical Diagnosis” (1868), “Diseases of the Respiratory Organs, Heart, and Kidneys” (1876), “Lectures on Fevers” (1882), “Diseases of Old Age” (1882) and “Practical Medicine” (1884) - and dozens of articles for medical journals. In 1886, an unknown friend of the University of New York gave through the good doctor a $100,000 endowment to build and equip the finest laboratory of its kind in the country.  There were just two conditions: That the donor remain anonymous, and that the laboratory be named the Loomis Laboratory.

He was instrumental in liquidating the debt of the University’s Medical School in 1886 and in reorganizing the course of study at the school in 1892. He served as president of every organization with which he was affiliated, including the American Climatological Society and the New York Academy of Medicine, over which he presided for two terms, declining a third in 1893 because of failing health.

He was so well respected in New York City that when President Garfield was shot in the summer of 1881, and the nation followed his aborted recovery through the newspapers of the day, the New York Times repeatedly ran accounts of Loomis’ opinion of the case, in spite of the fact that he had not examined the President. When former president Chester A. Arthur became seriously ill in February of 1886, his doctors summoned Loomis to Arthur’s New York City home in an attempt to prolong the former president’s life.

After his own recovery in the Adirondacks, Loomis had treated a young medical doctor, Edward Trudeau, and persuaded him to spend the winter in the mountains. Trudeau’s recovery was even more dramatic, and Loomis continued to send his tuberculosis patients to the north woods year around. When Trudeau advanced the idea of establishing America’s first sanitarium for consumptives at Saranac Lake in 1885, Loomis became co-founder. 

His experience with the widespread devastation caused by tuberculosis in New York City convinced him that a facility similar to the one he had built with Trudeau but closer to the metropolitan area was desperately needed.  He began sending patients to the Catskills with good results, and eventually decided to build his sanitarium in Liberty. He began raising money for the project but died before his plan could come to fruition.

Largely through the efforts of his sister-in-law, Mrs. Richard Irvin, and wealthy patients such as J.P. Morgan, Loomis’ dream was realized when the Loomis Sanitarium for Consumptives was opened as a memorial to him in 1896.

Mrs. Irvin employed some of the most renowned architects of the day to design the various buildings at the sanitarium, and many of those buildings remain today.  The facility, among the most successful in the country, comprised at its peak over 700 acres, included its own post office, fire department, electric generating plant, and water and sewer systems, and was able to treat 235 patients at a time.  It operated through 1942. 

The fascinating story of Dr. Loomis, Mary M. Irvin, and the Sanitarium they founded will be the subject of a presentation entitled, “Loomis: The Man, The Sanitarium, and The Seach for the Cure” by this columnist, your Sullivan County Historian, at the Liberty Public Library at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 20. The program is free and open to the public, but pre-registration is encouraged. Contact the library for more information

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian and a founder and president of The Delaware Company. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com.  


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