Living The Outdoor Life in Fairfax

by Lynn Downey

Arequipa Sanatorium, Fairfax, 1940. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

Lynn Downey is the author of (2019)

The Anne T. Kent California Room has a rich collection of Marin County historical photographs. If you happened to be browsing through their collection, you might come across this interesting photograph which was taken for an April 14, 1940 newspaper story. You then might ask yourself: who are these women and why are they covered with blankets on wicker chaise lounges? Their story began in another April, more than thirty years before.

It was April 18, 1906, and the earthquake and fires of that terrible day changed lives and institutions around the Bay Area, Marin County included. Fairfax became a haven for refugees fleeing fire and crumbling homes, and within five years it would also become a lifeline for another kind of refugee: women stricken with tuberculosis. On September 9, 1911, San Francisco physician Philip King Brown opened the Arequipa tuberculosis sanatorium in a lovely little valley near the base of White’s Hill. Arequipa Sanatorium treated women exclusively for nearly fifty years.

A sanatorium stay — called the “rest cure” — was the only way to survive tuberculosis until antibiotics were discovered during the late 1940s. These institutions usually treated both men and women in the same building, but Dr. Brown felt that women, especially those who labored in shops, classrooms, offices, and factories, were especially vulnerable to getting TB in the years following the earthquake. They couldn’t be outdoors in the open air like the men who were now rebuilding San Francisco. Hence, Dr. Brown decided to open a sanatorium just for these women, so they could defeat TB, and at a reasonable cost.

Philanthropist Henry Bothin gave Brown the land on which to build his sanatorium, just over the rise from Hill Farm. He had given that acreage to San Francisco nurse Elizabeth Ashe, who had opened Hill Farm as a place of convalescence for weary city dwellers in 1905.

Arequipa Sanatorium, 1912, Fairfax, California. Lynn Downey Collection.

Even though Dr. Brown’s patients lived in beds inside the sanatorium, they spent as much time as possible on vast outdoor balconies, depending on the weather. The wards were screened almost to the ceiling, so that fresh air flowed inside the building, too. This made for some interesting days, especially the foggy ones; sometimes the fog would drift through the screens, filling the ward, making everything look ghostly.

Getting over tuberculosis meant breathing in as much fresh air as you could, and this was called living The Outdoor Life. Doctors believed that the best way to both prevent and cure TB was to live this way 365 days a year: sleeping with the windows open, sleeping on screened porches, all the while keeping the lungs free of close, stale air. This was especially important for those working women who were stuck indoors in conditions that OSHA would never allow today.

From the day Dr. Philip Brown opened Arequipa in 1911, until the day in 1957 when his son Dr. Cabot Brown closed Arequipa, it was a place where The Outdoor Life ruled. Which brings us to our bathrobe-clad ladies. They look fairly bundled-up, and that’s because this photograph was taken in a still-chilly April, so the women needed a few extra layers for warmth. The caption on the clipping gives a short explanation of why the women were at Arequipa, but it’s the image that really tells the story.

The Outdoor Life gave life itself to the hundreds of women who were treated at Arequipa. Today, Arequipa and the Bothin Youth Center — the former Hill Farm property — still provide outdoor activities for children and families, continuing the good work started over a century ago.

Originally published at .



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