The good doctor’s good life

It’s no stretch to say that Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau did more than any other individual to put Saranac Lake on the map. He was the driving force behind the transformation of an Adirondack lakeside hamlet of loggers and hunters into one of the world’s foremost health-care and research centers. He accomplished this through overpowering force of will and unrelenting optimism while suffering from debilitating tuberculosis for the last four decades of his life and simultaneously enduring a chain of personal tragedies.

Dr. Edward Trudeau in his Saranac Lake labaratory.

Trudeau’s remarkable life is chronicled in a new book by Saranac Lake historian Mary Hotaling. A Rare Romance in Medicine is a clumsy title, vaguely suggesting a steamy B-grade novel set in a big-city hospital; the phrase is attributed to an earlier regional historian who was a Trudeau patient, Alfred L. Donaldson, who compiled the first comprehensive history of the Adirondacks. Hotaling’s title and subtitle, The Life and Legacy of Edward Livingston Trudeau, would benefit from being switched.

Once we get past the title, though, things improve rapidly. In his excellent and concise foreword, Garry Trudeau, Pulitzer Prize-winning Doonesbury cartoonist and the book subject’s great-grandson, explains that while Dr. Trudeau’s treatment techniques were not all original, he excelled in selling them to an entrenched medical establishment and a skeptical public and in pioneering the concept of nature as therapeutic—to Saranac Lake’s advantage. A Victorian-era model of positive attitude, at least in public, he was “a beacon of possibility in a time of widespread despair,” Garry Trudeau writes

The core of the book is a detailed (sometimes perhaps excessively detailed for the casual reader) chronology of Trudeau’s life. All the high points are here:

• His privileged, complacent youth, colored by his parents’ separation, and his diagnosis of incurable consumption (acquired while nursing his doomed brother), which set him on a path toward a medical career.

• His 1873 arrival, virtually on his deathbed, at Paul Smith’s hotel, his favorite place in the world.

• His hunting prowess.

• His marriage to a woman who was not sure he was the right man for her and whose family did not support the union because they doubted his ability to support her in the manner to which she was accustomed. Withal, she became his steadfast partner through good times and bad.

• The devastating deaths of three of their four children, one in infancy and two on the verge of adulthood.

• His experiments through which he solidified germ theory and helped change the way the world attacked a horrific disease.

• His friendships with the writer and sometime patient Robert Louis Stevenson, garrulous innkeeper Paul Smith, and people of all stripes, from wealthy and influential railroad magnates (who were also his angels) to local guides.

• His vision that led to the founding of the Adirondack Cottage Sanatorium and an entire industry.

• His refusal to turn sufferers away because they were too poor to cover the cost of their treatment or to succumb to the religious and ethnic discrimination that was all too common in his era;

• His impact on the growth of Saranac Lake, which he somehow summoned the energy to serve in several civic capacities.

A Rare Romance in Medicine:
The Life and Legacy
of Edward
Livingston Trudeau
By Mary B. Hotaling
Historic Saranac Lake, 2016
Softcover, 336 pages, $39.95

The book’s forty-two pages of endnotes and six-page bibliography attest to its thoroughness. In a volume replete with lengthy quotes, one of Hotaling’s principal sources is Trudeau’s own book, An Autobiography (he never came up with another title), the last major thing he accomplished; it was published in 1916, a few months after his death. Loyal to her profession, Hotaling points out that that book is more memoir than true history, sympathetically saying Trudeau told his story as he remembered it, as his life was ebbing. She honestly and without judgment points out discrepancies of fact or emphasis between it and the historical record. A parallel reading of both Trudeau’s book and Hotaling’s, published exactly one hundred years apart, would provide a balanced picture of the man.

One of the book’s strengths is its great wealth of archival illustrations. We see the principal characters, of course, but also get a feel for what Saranac Lake was like in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. A panorama of the village in 1874 reveals the rough-hewn collection of buildings the Trudeaus—attuned to the sophistication of New York and Paris—chose for home and career. We see the churches that Trudeau, a deeply religious man, paid for, and the growing aggregation of sanatorium buildings he asked others to pay for, a chore he was ambivalent about but found unavoidable. We see another side of the sickly, determined man many called “the beloved physician”—not only working intently in his lab, but also hunting, sailing, sleighing.

The volume concludes with an afterword by two medical professors, one trained at the Trudeau Institute, successor to the sanatorium. They trace the progression of Trudeau’s work in the hundred years since his death, including its challenges (not surprisingly, they revolve around political will and money). At some points you almost need your own medical degree to understand what they’re talking about, but when they observe, for example, that without his breakthroughs “we would not have been able to test modern antibiotics,” they hit the nail on the head.

The copyright page indicates that the book is published by Historic Saranac Lake, with Caroline Welsh, formerly of the Adirondack Museum, as project director, and produced by Adirondack Life Inc. This is reminiscent of the opening credits of some movies; who did exactly what is not made clear. But it doesn’t really matter; a century after his death, together they have made available a superb work about one of the Adirondacks’ most important and influential figures.