When Fears of Tuberculosis Drove an Open-Air School Movement
By the dawn of the 20th century, tuberculosis – otherwise known as consumption, “white plague” or “white death” – had become the leading cause of death in the United States. The terrible lung disease has killed about 450 Americans a day, most of them between the ages of 15 and 44.
At the time, tuberculosis was associated with dirty and unsanitary living conditions, which were common for workers who had gathered in cities across Europe and the United States since the Industrial Revolution. In the absence of an effective drug available (yet), the preferred treatment was outdoor cure, or exposing patients to as much fresh air and sunlight as possible. This has led to the proliferation of anti-tuberculosis sanatoria, ranging from luxury resorts to government institutions across Europe and the United States.
Although many of its victims are urban poor, no one is safe from tuberculosis, especially children. In fact, doctors and educators believed crowded classrooms and lack of fresh air in many schools were helping to spread the disease. To keep the children healthy, they decided to go to school outside.
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A pioneering “forestry school for sick children” in Germany
The open-air school movement was started in Germany in 1904, when Dr Bernhard Bendix, a leading German pediatrician, and Hermann Neufert, a school inspector from Berlin, opened the first Waldschule für kränkliche Kinder (or “forestry school for sick children”) in Charlottenburg, near Berlin. True to its name, the school was located in the heart of a nearby forest, with simple wooden buildings used for teaching in cold or rainy weather. The students commuted between town and most suffered from pre-tuberculosis symptoms such as anemia or swollen glands.
This first Waldschule started a movement that quickly spread across Europe, with the opening of similar experimental schools in Belgium, Italy, England, Switzerland and Spain. After World War I, the movement became more formal. The League for Outdoor Education led the first International Congress, held in Paris in 1922; four other international conferences were held in 1956.
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Outdoor schools in the United States
The open-air school movement arrived in the United States in 1908, thanks to two doctors from Rhode Island. Mary Packard and Ellen Stone were among the first female graduates of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and had helped found Providence’s League for the Suppression of Tuberculosis. After organizing a summer day camp for children with tuberculosis, they thought they would try the fresh air method on a larger scale during the school year.
The Providence School Board authorized the use of an empty brick school building, where a second-story classroom was renovated to have floor-to-ceiling windows on one side, which could be opened with a hinge and kept open to air.
As Mary Korr wrote in the Rhode Island Medical Journal in 2016, the students at the Providence Outdoor School were children who had been exposed to tuberculosis but were not actively ill. During that first cold New England winter, the kids snuggled up in portable blankets called “Eskimo Sitting Bags” and placed heated soap stones at their feet. A fire in a cylinder stove helped ease the cold, but the classroom never reached more than 10 degrees above what it was outside.
By the end of the first year of school, none of the students had fallen ill and their health had even improved. Building on this success, the idea of an outdoor school quickly spread, and within two years, 65 of them had opened in the United States, including 11 in Providence alone. . Some used the Providence School’s open window method, while others held classes outside or on the roof of their school building.
By 1918, some 130 American cities were operating outdoor schools, according to Neil S. MacDonald, author of a book on the outdoor school movement published that year. “In many western and southern states,” MacDonald wrote, “there is virtually no problem with the temperature and no reason why not all schools should be year-round outdoor schools. .
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The enduring legacy of outdoor schools
As the popularity of the open-air school movement grew, prominent architects in Europe and the United States began to design permanent school buildings that reflected the ideas and values of the movement.
One of the most famous (and radical) of these, a terraced glass and concrete structure by Jan Duiker, was built on a block in the heart of Amsterdam in 1927. Unlike many schools in outdoors, it aimed to extend the benefits of outdoor schooling to healthy schoolchildren, not just those with tuberculosis. In Los Angeles, architect Richard Neutra’s experimental additions to Corona Avenue Elementary School included a glass wall that opened up to an open-air classroom area, while each indoor classroom was exposed to light. on at least two sides.
Thanks to improvements in public health and hygiene standards, and in particular the discovery of streptomycin and other effective antibiotics, tuberculosis became a major health threat after the mid-1940s. Within a decade, the outdoor school movement had also ended.