THE REAL IRENE BYRON, Compassionate, cheerful, dedicated to caring for others

                        By Nancy Vendrely, The Journal Gazette, March 12, 1966


It was called “the great white plaque” in the 19th century when it became a major cause of death in Europe and North America.  But tuberculosis – or consumption as it was commonly known – had been around for centuries. 


It was the growth of the cities that increased the incidence of the infectious disease and brought it to all levels of society, including Allen County.


When the Fort Wayne Anti-Tuberculosis League was organized in 1910, there had been 122 TB deaths in the county the year before.  There would be 126 in 1910.  County leaders realized something must be done to protect the public.


The Anti-TB League focused on service and education.  A nurse called on patients in their homes and visited schools and other community organizations, teaching about sanitation and good health practices, but it soon became apparent that an isolation facility was needed.  Irene Byron, a nurse who had been hired by the Anti-TB League, worked for the establishment of an anti-tuberculosis settlement at the county farm and later lobbied for a new hospital.  (Irene Byron came to Fort Wayne in 1904 to enter nurses training and lived in the city until becoming an Army nurse in 1917.)


She was successful in both efforts, but she would not live to see the hospital completed.  Sixteen months before the Irene Byron Tuberculosis Sanatorium was dedicated, August 10, 1919, she died in Waco, Texas, a World War I Army nurse in service to her country. 



The first anti-TB facility, established in 1915, was called Fort Recovery.  Located on the county property northwest of the city, it consisted of a farmhouse and a cluster of 14 small cottages where victims were isolated.  Gloria Goeglein, who has been researching the Irene Byron story for a number of years with the intent of writing a book, says the TB camp originally was to be built on donated land near the county home then on the Bluffton Road.


“In 1913, the legislature passed a bill to empower the county commissioners to establish a county hospital, but after the floods in April 1913, they were concerned about that location,” she says.  “They abandoned the Bluffton Road site in June 1913 and instead hired a trained nurse to visit patients in their homes.  Her name was Sylvia Shively.  But apparently, she didn’t stay long, and Irene was hired.”


In 1915, when they realized a hospital still was needed, the county commissioners purchased 797 acres of land eight miles north of the city on the lines of the Fort Wayne and Northwestern Traction Co. and the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad.  Fort Recovery was established there under the auspices of the Anti-TB League.


Irene Byron directed the camp and a free TB clinic in the city.  She also worked to establish the city’s first fresh-air school – only the second in the state – for weak, anemic children who easily could fall victim to TB.  But the goal remained the establishment of a sanatorium where sick people could be isolated and receive treatment.


At that time, the most effective treatment was bed rest, fresh air, mild exercise and proper diet.  Patients might have to spend months or even years in a sanatorium before they recovered.  But many did not.  Indeed, tuberculosis which attacks primarily the lungs, was one of the world’s worst killers before drugs were developed to combat it.


While Irene Byron had a particular interest in TB is not known.  Perhaps it was just the timing.  She completed her nurses’ training at Hope Hospital in Fort Wayne in 1906 and worked as a private-duty nurse until she hired as director of the Anti-TB League.  Or, perhaps it was because people with TB needed a lot of nursing care.   Byron was known as a compassionate person, open, caring and fun-loving.  Some said it was her Irish ancestry.  She was said to possess “kindly Irish humor and never-failing cheerfulness.”


Born Patricia Irene on October 10, 1878, into a Catholic family of 14 children in Butler, Pa., she came to Fort Wayne in 1904 after living for a time with her sister in Montpelier, Ind.  She entered nurses training at Hope (forerunner of Methodist Hospital, now Parkview Memorial), and from then on was on her own as a single, working woman.  She lived at 1204 Lewis Street.


She became a respected and beloved figure in the community.  She also was known around the state and the country for her anti-TB work.  She was such a strong local leader that the Fort Wayne league sold more TB Christmas Seals per capita than any other in the nation.


When the United States entered World War I, the American Red Cross appealed for nurses to serve in military hospitals.  Byron answered the call and relinquished her duties as executive secretary of the Anti-Tuberculosis League.  In late September 1917, she departed for Camp McArthur outside Waco, Texas.  While on active duty at the base hospital, she became ill February 13, 1918.  When she grew worse, she was hospitalized and underwent surgery, but she continued to worsen and died of peritonitis on March 28, 1918. 


When it was learned that her body was to be shipped to California for burial, nurses, and friends here sent telegrams asking that the plan be reconsidered so the city could pay tribute to her.  Nothing came of their plea and Byron was buried in Fullerton, California, where one of her sisters resided.


“Irene’s work here was establishing the hospital,” Goeglein says.  “It was on its way when she left, but never saw it and she never worked in it.” 


When the Allen County commissioners named the new TB sanatorium for Bryon, they ensured that her name would live on, though over time her story has been largely forgotten.  It is that sad fact which encouraged Goeglein, 65, to learn more about Irene Byron many years after the sanatorium was closed. 


“I was on the Allen County Council and we were trying to find uses for the property.  It dawned on me she was a person.  I got intrigued and found nobody had done a history of her,” she says.  She started her research in 1977.  Through correspondence with Bryon’s relatives, old hospital records, newspaper accounts and a scrapbook kept by Gertrude Barber, the nurse who took over the Anti-TB League when Byron left and who became the superintendent of nurses at the sanatorium, Goeglein has amassed a large amount of information about Irene Byron, the woman.  She hopes to start writing a book this summer.


Meanwhile, Irene Byron, the sanatorium, has faded into history as buildings – vacant for years – have been demolished.  The Luecke Building, one of the last remaining of the complex, is the latest to fall. 


When the sanatorium was dedicated August 10, 1919, more than 10,000 people went to the site to view the red brick buildings sprawled over the green, landscaped campus.  Topped with Spanish red roofing tile, the buildings were lined with windows and porches so patients would have easy access to fresh air and sunshine.  In the hospital next to the administration building, patients were treated by a staff of specialists using the latest techniques.   Amenities included a cafeteria, dining room, library, classrooms and indoor recreation room, plus a tennis court, playground, wading pool and band pavilion.


When Indiana Gov. James P. Goodrich spoke at the dedication, he said 3 out of 10 men who had attempted to enlist in World War I were rejected because of tuberculosis troubles, and that 40,000 people in Indiana were afflicted with TB.  Of that number, 4,000 died each year.


He said the disease was “like a thief in the night – more subtle in its danger than any army with banners – leaving sorrow in its trail.”  He praised county residents for building a facility from which would flow  “streams of healing.”


Catherine Jacquay, 99, helped keep that stream flowing.  She was a nurse at the sanatorium for several years and is now a resident of Byron Health Center, the nursing home adjacent to the old campus.  “Three of us came here after nurses’ training in Chicago,” Jacquay says.  “We got $25 a week and you could save on that.”   She remembers using “a lot of disinfectant … and bichloride of mercury.  We had to wash our hands good all the time.”


Year-round fresh air was one of the treatments.  She says the small cottages that remained in use after the TB sanatorium replaced Fort Recovery, were “pretty cold.”


“I loved my patients;  I stuck with them,” she says.  “But very few of them got well in those days.”


However, there were successes.  Goeglein has an admitting ledger, which was started at Fort Recovery, May 17, 1915, and used until April 1952.  After each patient’s name, the outcome is noted.  Not all were marked “deceased.”  Little now remains of that era.  Medical discoveries had virtually wiped out TB in this country until the AIDS epidemic brought recent outbreaks. 


And little remains of the TB facility itself.  The Kidder Building, which was added to the complex in 1952, now houses the Allen County Sheriff’s Department.  On adjacent county property are the Allen County Youth Services Center, which took the Byron name after the sanatorium closed. 


For Goeglein, the motivation for learning about Irene Byron has been her wish to provide a written record of the nurse’s life and work.  Goeglein has two cousins who were orphaned by TB, and she believes there are many such families in the area whose lives were touched by the disease and by the Irene Byron Tuberculosis Sanatorium.


“She was dedicated to educating people about good health.  It must have been a job really meant for her,” Goeglein says.  “I just want to do her story so people will know who she was.”



                                                ROOF TILES GO TO TEXAS MANSION


Although most of the original buildings at the Irene Byron Tuberculosis Sanatorium are gone, one tangible piece of that era is finding new life in Texas.  The Spanish red tile from the roof of the Luecke Building is going to the roof of a palatial home in River Oaks, the Beverly Hills of Houston.


Eileen Ridge of the Dublin Roofing Tile Co., in Houston says it is a new home with “an old look … the owner likes the idea of vintage tile.”   The 9,000-square-foot house is being built for John and Julie O’Quinn.  He is a nationally known attorney who handled the breast implant class action suit and has been interviewed on “60 Minutes” and “Frontline.”  The house looks out onto the bayou,” Ridge says.  “It is a mansion.”


All this came about because the Allen County Commissioners didn’t want the roofing tile to end up in a landfill.  When they sought buyers for it, Fort Wayne Roofing Co. was the only one to show interest.  The company got the tile for $1, but Dave Belschner says it’s costing $15,000 to get it off the roof and get it stacked, buffered and crated for shipment.


Through an ad in a restoration magazine, Belschner found The Tile Man – Ken McGee – in Louisburg, N.C.  McGee, who worked for 40 years for the Ludowici-Cedadon Co., - makers of the Byron tile – buys and sells vintage tile and slate.  He says Ludowici is the “oldest manufacturer of clay roofing tiles in the country.  The old tile is in demand,” McGee says.  “It is prettier;  it was made in beehive kilns.”


McGee advertises his business in national preservation magazines and networks with builders around the country.  When the Dublin Roofing Co. in Houston wanted vintage roofing tile, they knew where to go.  McGee says buyers always want to know where the slate comes from, so he tries to provide a little history.  This may be one of his more unusual stories. 


The Luecke Building once sheltered the youngest of victims.  Frail youngsters stricken with a disease for which there was no medicine save fresh air, sunshine and good nutrition, lived in Luecke until they were restored to good health or succumbed.  For some, it was a long time.  

                                                                                                Nancy Vendrely