Under the big sky of the sparsely populated Maniototo Basin in Central Otago sits a mostly intact but almost forgotten group of red-brick buildings once at the vanguard of New Zealand’s public health response to another infectious disease.

People feeling the loneliness and frustration in Covid-19 isolation hotels in our cities can spare a thought for their infectious Kiwi counterparts taken to this remote place at Waipiata, 126km inland from Dunedin. It is where people with tuberculosis, also known as consumptives, went to “recover”. Their average stay was around five months. Some spent years of their lives there.

Opened in 1923, the Waipiata sanatorium was one of five hospitals set up to reduce TB in New Zealand’s population. It ran on the philosophy that fresh air, good nutrition and graduated exercise improved the immunity enough to restore people back to health, Susan Haugh writes in her History Honours thesis from Otago University: “The Hill of Health” – Aspects of Community at Waipiata Sanatorium.

At its height in the 1940s, the institution housed 152 patients in two accommodation wings. Each four-bed room opened to a veranda where the sick, including children as young as four, were wheeled in their beds to access the fresh (sometimes sub-zero) high-country air to heal their diseased lungs. During the first month of strict bed rest, the only distraction would have been the ceaseless view over the Maniototo plains to the mountains.

When snow came in the windows deliberately left open regardless of temperature, it settled on patients’ beds, and umbrellas had to be deployed. One of the nurses’ duties was to regularly replace hot water bottles when they froze at night.

Nurses with patients pose outside their dormitory in the hot sun, most likely the women’s pavilion. Waipiata’s climate was extreme – 30 degree-plus days in summer, sub-zero in winter. Photo: From the collection of Anthony and Sarah Bradfield

When health permitted, male and female patients dined in the open-air ‘Diet Pavilion’ between their accommodation. Recovering consumptives would while away the hours playing cards, writing letters, reading and exercise. Or work on the surrounding 1000-acre farm that supplied their food.

To beat the tedium for staff and patients, there were concerts, a regular newsletter and a library on site. Those well enough could swim (or skate in winter) in a nearby dam, and play sports such as tennis, croquet, netball and rugby.

Haugh’s thesis shows the similarities between Covid-19 and this disease dubbed the “white plague”. Most people’s immune systems could contain TB, contracted after inhaling spores (bacilli) spread through droplets of cough and spit. For others, the bacilli overcame the body’s defences and spread through the lungs. Close contact with the infected, poor ventilation and cramped urban living were implicated in the spread. Until the 1950s when treatment with antibiotic drugs became successful, there was no cure and thousands of New Zealanders died.

Inside the women’s dormitory.  Photo: George Murahidy

Haugh writes that sanatoria, or “medically supervised refuges” were a solution, particularly for those whose TB was less well advanced. She found a treatment regime at Waipiata that was overall well-intentioned, rather than dehumanising, with “more the feel of a country town than a hospital environment”. In keeping with the informality, and echoing a more recent debate in New Zealand about mask use, live-in doctor Arthur Kidd felt nurses needn’t adhere too strictly to wearing gowns and masks, which “cause slackening of precautions”.

The sanatorium finally closed in 1961, having cared for some 5000 TB sufferers, many leaving their families behind in towns and cities. Records show 61 people died at the facility.

From 1961, the buildings were taken over by the Ministry of Justice and reconfigured as a prison for youth offenders; doors to the verandas were swapped for heavy, lockable ones (since replaced), and the verandas were closed in. In 1980 when the borstal closed, two businessmen bought the buildings off the Government. But their plans never eventuated, and the buildings stood empty. Former North Islanders Margaret and David Bradfield bought it as their home in 1985, and today the sanatorium is a carefully tended-to Christian retreat. A sign at the entrance welcomes you to En Hakkore (Bible Chapt 15, vs 19, meaning “Spring of Him who calls upon God”). It is a “Ministry of rest, retreat and restoration” says the website for artist and fellow resident Russell Perry.

Patients’ beds laid out in the dormitory to catch the sun, as well as the cold dry mountain air from the open windows. Photo: From the collection of Anthony and Sarah Bradfield

When Newsroom visited, Anthony and Sarah Bradfield (son and daughter-in-law of Margaret and David) kindly showed us through the complex they now own, including the kitchen with coal range; the butchery where sanatorium staff processed their meat and the all-important laundry with original boiler. The sanatorium even had its own post office and fire station. The surrounding farm (now down to 140 acres) and former staff houses sustain theirs and several other families, between 30 and 40 people in total. The couple have six children – educated through a mix of home and local schooling at the closest town of Ranfurly. Through word of mouth, people visit for retreats, buy preserves, surplus vegetables grown on the property, and art. On occasion, former patients or inmates knock on their door on their journey of rediscovery. It can “get quite emotional” when they see their old rooms, says Anthony.

Buildings are upgraded as finances allow; with the Bradfield’s ethos more about maintenance than preservation. Anthony says they are working towards taking the property off-grid. With its own water supply, and sewerage system that was built for the hospital, their hope is that in the future, greater numbers will come to join their community as a sanctuary and larger ministry.

An old postcard of the complex in its early days. The photo shows the two large wings or pavilions for accommodation, with the “Diet” dining complex in the middle. Also, the two-storey nurses home away to the right in the distance.

Tour guide and Otago heritage enthusiast Gregor Campbell believes the old sanatorium is a well-preserved time-capsule that has not lost its original character. Buildings were all beautifully built using quality wood and materials because, he says wryly, “it was all they had”.

Otago University Professor Emerita in History Barbara Brookes says in sanatoria, it was often unclear when they could ever get out, so ‘sentences’ were much more indeterminate than the current two-week quarantine. She says that with empty hotels with no tourism, hotels are now better placed to isolate people.

“The key difference is the indeterminate length of stay. People today can talk, facetime and zoom with family, watch TV, movies of their choice. The people in sanatoria were much more isolated, and because of the long stays had to create a sense of community if they were to survive.”

Happy Holidaymakers

A brochure about a Central Otago sanatorium published in 1928 said: ‘It would be hard to find a happier, more healthy looking lot of men and women than those at Waipiata. The high percentage of sunshine and the cheerful surroundings appear to work wonders with the patients, and it is not easy to realise that they are [there] to have their health restored. With their sunburnt faces and well nourished bodies they look to be in perfect physical condition. A happy band of holiday-makers is the impression they create.’ There was no mention of the dead and dying patients.

*Made with the help of NZ on Air*

Melanie Reid is Newsroom's lead investigations editor.

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