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An unidentified patient (left) with Dr. Alan Hurst at National Jewish Hospital, circa 1950. Photo courtesy of Beck Archives, University of Denver

Colorado’s Jewish Healthcare Workers Get the Spotlight in This New Exhibit

The inaugural exhibit in History Colorado’s new Ballantine Gallery honors the Jewish community’s efforts to care for Colorado’s poor and sick—particularly those who suffered from tuberculosis in the early 20th century.

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At the turn of the last century, tuberculosis patients flocked to Colorado for fresh air and sunshine. A bacterial infection often of the lungs, tuberculosis was a leading cause of death in United States at that time and didn’t yet have any proven treatment. Doctors theorized that exposure to clean air and sunshine, as well as a healthy diet and rest, could improve symptoms. Denver became a popular destination.

“More people came to Colorado, I would say at least until the 1930s, in search of health rather than in search of wealth,” says Jeanne Abrams, director of the Rocky Mountain Jewish Historical Society and the Beck Archives at the University of Denver. 

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Abrams is guest curator of a new exhibit at History Colorado called A Legacy of Healing, which opens on November 17. The exhibit draws from materials belonging to Beck Archives to shed light on how the Jewish community led the way in healthcare in Colorado.

“Tuberculosis became a crisis because so many people flocked here to chase the cure,” Abrams says. The Jewish community acted as first responders, she says, founding National Jewish Hospital for Consumptives (now National Jewish Health) in 1899 as Denver’s first tuberculosis sanatorium and in 1904 establishing the Jewish Consumptives’ Relief Society (JCRS), which became known for serving kosher ethnic cuisine. Both Lutheran and Swedish Medical Centers came along later and also established as tuberculosis sanatoriums, but the Jewish institutions were the only ones to treat all patients free of charge. “Both of them were formally nonsectarian,” Abrams says, “though I would say most of their early patients were eastern European Jewish immigrants.”

Patients at the Jewish Consumptives’ Relief Society (circa 1930) participated in heliotherapy, or sun exposure, as treatment for tuberculosis. Photo courtesy of Beck Archives, University of Denver

A Legacy of Healing traces these origins, highlighting notable individuals including Frances Wisebart Jacobs, a Jewish woman who became known as Denver’s Mother of Charities and has since been inducted into both the Colorado and National Women’s Halls of Fame. Jacobs helped organize the founding of National Jewish Hospital, although she died before it officially opened. She also collaborated with a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister to start the Charity Organization Society of Denver, which later became the United Way of America.

Other Jewish-founded institutions included the Denver Sheltering Home for Jewish Children, which was started to care for children whose parents suffered from tuberculosis, Beth-Israel Hospital, and Rose Medical Center. 

The first exhibit in History Colorado’s new first-floor Ballantine Gallery, A Legacy of Healing is an example of the museum’s collaborative work to shed light on local communities that may otherwise be overlooked. 

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“We’re looking to partner with all kinds of other community groups,” says Shannon Voirol, History Colorado’s director of exhibit planning. “What we’re striving to do is show that…you can find yourself in History Colorado.”

Along with photographs and a 30-minute documentary, A Legacy of Healing features old medical equipment, an outfit worn by Frances Wisebart Jacobs, and a stained glass window that was part of National Jewish Hospital’s on-campus synagogue. It will be on display through April 19, 2020, when the gallery will welcome a new exhibit featuring the work of Mexican-American artists. A future exhibit about Elizabeth “Baby Doe” Tabor is also in the works.

If you go: A Legacy of Healing opens on November 17. The first-floor exhibit is free for History Colorado members and children under 5; museum admission is $8–14.

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