Highlands Historical Society honors Mary Lapham’s contributions to battling tuberculosis

A small group gathered along the roadside near the Highlands Historical Society on Tuesday morning for the unveiling of the North Carolina Highway Historical Marker honoring Mary Lapham for her innovative method of curing tuberculosis.

Historical Society Archivist Ran Shaffner began the process to approve the marker over three years ago through the N. C. Department of Cultural Resources and said a few words before the unveiling that highlighted some of Lapham’s contributions to the area.

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The North Carolina Historical Marker honoring Mary Lapham’s contribution to curing tuberculosis in the 1900s.

In the early 1900s, the TB was killing millions of Americans annually, said Shaffner. Lapham began a sanatorium located where the Recreation Park is today and had sixty open-air tent-houses surrounding a three-story infirmary. Her method of curing advanced cases of tuberculosis became known as lung collapse therapy. She would inject the diseased lung with nitrogen, which caused it to collapse, allowing it to rest and heal. To keep the other lung from degenerating, her patients slept in tent-houses outdoors, breathing only the frigid air.

“What she has contributed here was even significant in Europe,” said Shaffner. “I think she deserves this and deserves the recognition for what she did.”

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Ran Shaffner explained Mary Lapham’s method of collapsing the patient’s lung using nitrogen.

Shaffner added that her method resulted in helping hundreds of patients who were deemed lost causes.

“Lapham was the first physician in the U.S. to adopt this treatment successfully,” he said. “Patients came to Highlands in their twenties and thirties on stretchers expecting to die but lived into their eighties and nineties. In Highlands alone her technique of collapse therapy resulted in full recoveries of an astonishing 240 otherwise hopeless cases.”

Bug Hill around 1910

Highlands Camp Sanatorium in 1910. Photo by Henry Scadin

Shaffner said Lapham went on to train physicians in the U.S. who later performed outstanding work in curing the disease. By 1940, as many as eighty percent of patients in American institutions were undergoing some form of lung compression, which had become the treatment of choice before the discovery of Streptomycin brought an end to tuberculosis in the 1950s.

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Open-air tent-houses at the Sanatorium so patients could breathe the frigid air to prevent their non-collapsed lung from degenerating. Photo by Henry Scadin.

“Her sanatorium was known locally as ‘Bug Hill,’ after the tubercule bacillus, and there are still people who remember Lapham for her genuine concern for those who needed medical attention, especially the women of Highlands,” said Shaffner. “They also remember her love of merrymaking at Faraway, her home on Satulah Mountain.”

The Historical Highway Marker honoring Lapham is located on U.S. 64 East, N. 4th Street, just north of the Highlands Historic Village and in front of the last remaining open-air tent-house, which the Historical Society has preserved.

Photo of Mary Lapham 1907 by C. M. Hayes in black dress

Mary Lapham in 1907. Photo by C.M. Hayes

The Mary Lapham marker becomes the 12th marker in Macon County, said Jeff Futch, of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources. North Carolina highway historical markers generally use 3-inch letters, so the text is short, but much more details about each one can be found on the historical marker’s website.

Futch added that anyone is free to submit a proposal to the NC DNCR. All proposals are submitted to the members of the Marker Advisory Committee for review. This group of ten historians from across North Carolina, each of whom is an expert in the state’s history, look primarily for some indication that the subject is of statewide, as opposed to only local, significance.

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A small crowd was in attendance in Highlands for the unveiling of the North Carolina Historical Marker honoring Mary Lapham.

“It is not a simple matter to qualify,” said Futch. “It is the Department’s hope that this marker will play a part in insuring that Mary Lapham is recognized and remembered for many generations to come.”

Article and photos by Brian O’Shea
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