August 19, 2022

There is a reminder, hiding in plain sight in the architecture of Medical Center North, of how VUMC dealt with a deadly infectious disease almost 100 years ago

An open-air porch for tuberculosis patients was built into the old Vanderbilt Hospital — and it’s still visible if you know where to look

An image, circa 1925, of the open-air porch and walkways in Medical Center North. The tree in the foreground is approximately where the brown awning is today.

One hundred years ago, when the building that we now know as Medical Center North was being designed and built, an incurable infectious disease was spreading through the population, causing numerous deaths.

That disease, tuberculosis, was known in ancient times and is still with us today, but is now, thankfully, relatively rare in the United States thanks to the invention of antibiotics.

When MCN, known then as the “new” Vanderbilt Hospital, opened in 1925, antibiotic treatment for TB was still decades in the future and the disease was still common all over the United States, including in Tennessee.

Before the invention of antibiotics, there was no cure for TB, but fresh air was thought to be beneficial to the patients, so the original building had a porch adjacent to the ward where TB patients stayed.

In the original Medical Center North, this porch for tuberculosis patients ran between the B and C corridors on the second floor. Patients could be rolled out onto the porch in their wheelchairs to sit in the sunshine and fresh air. Above the porch, on the third floor, was a narrow open-air walkway between the B corridor and C corridors.

This architectural remnant of how state-of-the-art TB treatment was built into the hospital can be seen by looking above the brown MCN awning that faces Medical Center Drive. Let your eyes drift upward; the rows of windows that are the remnants of the old porch are on the second and third floors that cross between corridors above the awning and back about 50 feet.

The second floor porch and third floor outdoor walkway were bricked-in in the 1950s, when antibiotics had TB on the wane.

This is not to say TB has been conquered worldwide; it is still a major public health problem in some parts of the world today. And antibiotic resistance continues to require vigilance lest we return to a pre-antibiotic time when no drug was known to stop TB.