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The hidden story of Black nurses in the fight against TB and the search for a cure

Maria Smilios
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On a gray day in August 2015, while working as a developmental editor for Springer, I was making my way through a book on rare lung diseases. In the middle of a chapter on a prospective new drug, I read 13 words that became the gateway to an extraordinary hidden history: “The cure for tuberculosis was found in Sea View Hospital in Staten Island.” 

As a native New Yorker who loved stories about disease and old hospitals in the city, I paused, opened a new tab and Googled “Sea View + Cure.” Instantly, an article about the topic popped up, but alongside it was another story about a woman named Virginia Allen, who was 86 at the time and part of a group of African American nurses called the Black Angels. 

After a futile online search for more information about these nurses and Virginia, I called the Staten Island Museum. They not only knew about her, she was scheduled to speak about the Black Angels at their reopening celebration that very weekend. That Sunday afternoon, I watched Virginia stand beside photographs featuring Black nurses and Sea View Hospital and explain to a small crowd about the women in the photos whose patients had called the “Black Angels.”

Photo: Virginia Allen worked as a nurse at Staten Island's Sea View Hospital in New York City. 

For the next six weeks, we met on Wednesday afternoons at a little cafe in Harlem Hospital. Slipping into a back booth, we ordered lunch, and over the next hour, I listened as she shared snippets of this story. She eventually invited me to her home in Staten Island, which was in the restored nurse’s residence at Sea View, the same place she had lived 60 years earlier, but now it was surrounded by the abandoned hospital complex. As we walked the grounds, she told me about TB and the Black Angels. Then she asked me to tell their story. But she cautioned there were no archives. This was an oral history, and to tell it, I started with Virginia. 

She told me an overview of the story and then shared a list of names, mostly of family members from her former colleagues; they in turn gave me more names, and soon I was reaching out to people across the country. Months passed, and my Tape-a-Call app ballooned with hundreds of hours of conversation, many of them with strangers, who delighted in sharing memories of their mothers, aunts or grandmothers.

As the nurses’ story unfolded, Dr. Edward Robitzek’s son, John, told me about his father, responsible for leading the first TB drug trials with isoniazid at Sea View; his story set in motion the book’s second narrative thread — the race for the cure. Graciously, John sent me his father’s archives, which included stacks of files from the trials. From those records, I found two of the 97 original trial patients; at 88 years old, both recalled in great detail their experiences of nearly dying and then being cured. There were others — neighbors, parishioners and friends— whose firsthand testimony added more texture and depth to this evolving oral narrative that took years to corroborate. 

Photo: The abandoned Sea View hospital complex today.

Soon, piece by piece, this story of the nurses who packed up their lives to leave the Jim Crow South and head north to Sea View began to emerge. I learned that most of the women were young and eager to use their degrees and to live a life free from the daily constraints of segregation — the back doors, the yes sirs, the colored fountains and waiting areas, and the violence.

Back then, no one prepared them for how TB annihilated the body in fantastic ways, how at Sea View the sick lingered for years, as medical cards attested: “length of stay 465 days, 627 days, 800 days, 1,019 days.” For these people, time fell away. They grew desperate, and their voices became laced with a bitterness, a darkness that came from living life in the shadow of death. Many passed the hours in macabre ways like tracking sputum counts and fevers and using the stats to bet on who would die first. It was a strange spectacle, and for the nurses, it reinforced their role not only as medical providers but also as mediators between the worlds of the living and the dying. 

And all the while, the nurses dealt with the institution, exemplified by their long-time supervisor, Miss Lorna Doone Mitchell, the daughter of a confederate medic, who wielded her power in perverse ways from spying on them to refusing requests for transfers. Then there was the racist vision of some city officials who believed the Black women were simply expendable. In response to a challenge from a fierce advocate for nurse’s rights in 1933, the city’s president of hospitals revealed his true colors: “The reason we send Black nurses to Sea View,” he said, “is because in 20 years we won’t have a colored problem in America because they’ll all be dead from TB.”

Photo: The front page of the Feb. 21, 1952, New York Post  reported the encouraging results of the TB drug trial at Sea View.

He didn’t get his wish. Instead, in the face of such attitudes, the nurses persisted, giving us the ending we all know, the one revealed Feb. 21, 1952, in a New York Post headline that read: “Wonder Drug Fights TB.” It was a triumphant moment for medical science, but as Dr. Robitzek later said, “None of it would have been possible without the nurses.”

This overarching narrative of women being erased from science and of the human cost for hidden labor illustrated by the Black Angels continues today. Front-line workers, like the Sea View nurses, are often underpaid, overworked and overlooked. Many continue to toil under dreadful conditions in woefully understaffed hospitals and other settings to keep patients well and safe while enduring sexism, inequity and systemic racism. 

We also know that TB remains the number one infectious disease killer in the world despite advances in diagnosis and treatment. In 2021, according to the World Health Organization, TB sickened 10.6 million people and killed 1.6 million. And like Sea View’s patient population, those in countries with a high prevalence of TB still struggle to get access to testing and health care and, when diagnosed, many are still stigmatized. 

My hope in telling this story is for the Black Angels to find their rightful place in history and take center stage in the TB narrative. But I also hope their story will inspire us to connect the past to the present, to recall the sacrifices these women made and to remember that they are still being made — because medicine and our health depend on those standing along the front lines. 

Smilios’s book, The Black Angels: The Untold Story of the Nurses Who Helped Cure Tuberculosis, will be published in September.


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