New Museum Examines the History of Tuberculosis in Iceland
Hælið, a new museum dedicated to the history of tuberculosis (TB) in Iceland, opened in Kristnes in North Iceland earlier this month. RÚV reports that the museum is located on the grounds of a former sanatorium for patients suffering from what was dubbed “the white death,” both in and outside of Iceland. Its collection includes photographs, personal effects, and dramatized, first-person accounts of people who suffered from the disease.
A total of 5,900 people died from tuberculosis between 1911 and 1970 in Iceland.
Tuberculosis isn’t “sexy”
The Hælið museum was founded by María Pálsdóttir, who grew up around Kristnes, just outside of Akureyri on the Eyjafjörður fjord. María was back for a visit in 2015 and said she was sorry to see the former clinic falling into disrepair. And so, she thought: “Why don’t I do something with it?”
The Kristnes Hospital was originally founded as a sanatorium for TB patients in 1927. Today, the main building houses the Akureyri Hospital’s rehabilitation centre and gerontology ward, but some of its outbuildings have not been in use for some time. María converted one of these unused buildings—the former living quarters for female sanatorium staff—into the Hælið museum.
“I got all kinds of warnings that [tuberculosis] was not something I should be focusing on—that it wasn’t sexy. But then I asked in response, ‘What’s sexy about herring?’” she recalled, referring to the town of Siglufjörður’s famous Herring Era Museum.
Loved him “to every last bone”
The museum has already been visited by a number of people who were once patients at the sanatorium. María says the exhibition has touched these visitors in different ways, explaining that there was no such thing as trauma counselling in those days and as such, many of these former patients hadn’t fully processed their experiences or even talked about the illness before now. She continued that there was a great deal of shame and isolation surrounding the disease, even after patients had recovered, as people around them often remained afraid of contracting the illness.
Over the last four years, María has been contacted by numerous people touched by TB and received mementoes and objects related to patients’ time in the sanatorium and their treatments. This response just goes to show how important this subject is for people, she says.
Among the most remarkable things in the exhibition are five rib bones that belonged to a TB patient named Bjössi Sör. Bjössi contracted tuberculosis in 1953 and underwent a Thoracoplasty, that is, a surgical technique that was one of several ‘collapse therapies’ used on tuberculosis patients prior to the advent of antituberculosis chemotherapy. The procedure involved “the removal of several ribs at a time to cause the deflation of part of the lung.” It was thought that collapsing part of a lung in TB patients would give the organ time to rest and repair itself, and also cut off the supply of oxygen to TB bacteria. Thoracoplasties were the most drastic of the collapse therapy methods because they were permanent and as such, were only used in the most desperate of cases. Typically, the removed rib bones were thrown out, but in Bjössi’s case, his wife, who “loved him down to every last bone,” decided to keep them and stored them ever since in an old pantyhose box. Both the bones and the box they’ve been kept in are now on display at Hælið.