Iconic local author’s long-ago triumph over quarantine and tuberculosis

Apr 1, 2020, 12:38 PM | Updated: 5:09 pm
Firland Sanatorium, quarantine...
Many of the buildings of the old Firland Sanatorium still stand in Shoreline near North 195th Street and Fremont Avenue North; author Betty MacDonald recovered from tuberculosis there in the late 1930s. (Seattle Municipal Archives)
(Seattle Municipal Archives)

I don’t know about you, but I reached my limit on stories about the 1918 pandemic about two weeks ago. So, I went in search of some other inspiring local stories of survival in quarantine, and I didn’t have to go too far to find Betty MacDonald.

Old-timers will need no introduction, but for those who don’t know, Betty MacDonald grew up in Seattle in the 1920s. Her most famous book, The Egg and I, became a national best-seller when it was published in 1945.

The book is about MacDonald’s early adult years on the Olympic Peninsula trying to run a poultry farm with her first husband. It was made into a 1947 movie with Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray. Some supporting characters in that movie, Ma and Pa Kettle, played by Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride, went on to star in a whole series of their own films well into the 1950s.

MacDonald went on to write the “Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle” books for kids, and a few other memoirs, too.

Paula Becker is a Seattle author and historian. She researched and wrote a Betty MacDonald biography a few years ago, and is an expert on MacDonald’s life and work. She gets emails from Betty MacDonald fans around the world, and sometimes even leads out-of-town visitors on informal tours to see local Betty MacDonald places.

Late last month, Becker wrote a blog post about how MacDonald was quarantined with the respiratory disease tuberculosis, and then later wrote a pretty funny book about it.

That book was called The Plague and I, a follow-up to The Egg and I. For some people, the pronunciation of “egg” rhymes with “plague.” See what those long-ago publishers did there?

Becker says the notion of surviving an infectious disease and surviving an accompanying quarantine – and doing so with humor and panache – is something that’s resonating with a lot of people right now.

“It’s fascinating now that, as we are dealing as a planet with the COVID-19, that all of a sudden, the fact that this woman wrote this humorous, but poignant book about tuberculosis, The Plague and I, it’s really starting to be something that people are concentrating on and noticing,” Becker said by phone a few days ago. “Because the story of that book is that she got through it, and that humor was part of how she was able to cope with the fear and the confinement of being in a tuberculosis sanatorium.”

Becker admits she’s surprised by the attention that The Plague and I is now getting in some literary and historical circles.

“I did not see it coming that [The Plague and I] would be the book that people would in 2020 be talking about of Betty MacDonald’s books,” Becker said. “But it really feels like that’s happening.”

Becker says that the respiratory ailment known as tuberculosis – also called “consumption” – was much more prevalent before World War II, and especially before the advent of effective antibiotics.

In the early and mid-19th century, people tried to treat themselves at home, but approaches changed in the late-19th century with creation of dedicated quarantine facilities known as sanatoria (the somewhat awkward plural of “sanatorium”).

By the early 20th century, Seattle had private sanatoria for those who could afford to pay, and then, in 1911, with support from private donors, the city government created a public sanatorium just south of the Snohomish county line in what’s now Shoreline.

It came to be called Firland.

“Firland was founded because Seattle in the early part of the 20th century had a really huge tuberculosis problem,” Becker said.

People at the lower end of the economic spectrum who were on the move in search of jobs were often blamed for the spread of tuberculosis a hundred years ago, but the reality is the disease didn’t discriminate, Becker says, with middle and upper class families suffering as well.

Firland was where Betty MacDonald was quarantined when she was in her early 30s and came down with tuberculosis.

“She was diagnosed in the fall of 1938 and … she was there until very early June of 1939,” Becker said. “So she actually had a quite short confinement there – only about nine months – and statistically, most patients at the time were there for almost two years, and some of them much longer, and some of them would get discharged and then get readmitted as they relapsed.”

MacDonald, who had separated from her first husband by the time she was diagnosed, had two young children. Becker says that this was likely a motivating factor in MacDonald’s recovery. Treatment for tuberculosis in the 1930s involved prolonged bed rest, hearty eating, and lots of fresh air.

“She was, I think, a very compliant patient in that she was really, really determined to survive,” Becker said. “She had two little girls at the time, and she really did not want to have tuberculosis take her from them.”

Though the Firland regimen of bed rest, food, and fresh air (and, one can assume, an ample supply of toilet paper) sounds almost perversely appealing at the moment, and it’s easy to see how patients might go a little stir crazy in that particular quarantine.

Paula Becker sees more than a few parallels between what Betty MacDonald writes about in The Plague and I and what a lot of people are struggling with right now in response to the pandemic and government exhortations to stay home.

“We’re coping, but we’re also grieving what we can’t have, and in some cases were grieving things that we actually won’t get again because some businesses will not survive this and [some] people will not survive this,” Becker said. “And I think that being able to sit with that and think about the pieces of our life that are still good and that are still happy is something that Betty managed to find a way to balance in her experience,” she said.

“That’s our challenge today,” Becker said. “That’s still a really hard task, and it still is part of what makes Betty’s book The Plague and I relevant right now.”

If all this talk about coping and grief and feelings makes you a little uncomfortable, you might find it soothing to know that Paula Becker says many of the old and very impressive Firland buildings still stand in Shoreline near North 195th Street and Fremont Avenue North.

The facility ceased being a sanatorium decades ago, and was purchased by Christa Ministries; King’s School is also located there now, too.

“Those buildings are almost all still there,” Becker said. “It’s absolutely kind of hidden in plain sight in Seattle … and I’m not encouraging everyone to break quarantine and go driving up to look … [but] in the future, when we’re not at home, read The Plague and I, and then just look at those buildings up there and you can absolutely see what she was talking about.”

“It’s just fascinating,” Becker said. Google Maps, which is a great alternative way to take a look at the old Firland grounds in the meantime, backs up Becker’s assessment.

Betty MacDonald died of cancer in 1958, but several of her books, including The Egg and I and The Plague and I, with new forewords written by Paula Becker – are back in print thanks to Seattle’s UW Press.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Iconic local author’s long-ago triumph over quarantine and tuberculosis