Pine Trees

The subject of pine trees formed a digression in the second issue of the Hospitals Investigator, and it put me in mind of earlier research that I had done in Scotland where Sanatoria were set amongst pines so that the patients might benefit from terabinthine vapours. Nordrach-on-Dee was one such, later Glen-0-Dee Hospital, near Banchory.

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Forests, Woods and Trees in relation to Hygiene was published in 1919, by Augustine Henry. Here he discussed the latest research into the effects of pine trees in a chapter on ‘Forests as sites for Sanatoria’. Even Pliny, it seems, considered that ‘forests, particularly those which abound in pitch and balsam, are most beneficial to consumptives or to those who do not gather strength after a long illness; and are of more value than a voyage to Egypt’.

In New York patients with tuberculosis were sent to the Adirondack Forest, where they might benefit from the pure and invigorating air. In England the earliest experiments with fresh-air treatment for consumption were made in 1840 by Dr George Boddington, at Sutton Coldfield in Warwickshire and in Ireland by Dr Henry MacCormac of Belfast in 1856. Dr Walther systematised and popularised open-air treatment in the Black Forest with his Nordrach Colonie Sanatorium, which was hugely influential in Britain. Treatment in an alpine sanatorium in Switzerland was beyond the financial reach of most invalids, but pine woods could easily be planted, and already existed in abundance, allowing this form of treatment to be widely replicated.

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I particularly like this dramatic architectural perspective of the West Wales Sanatorium, at Llanybydder, Carmarthenshire, with its fringe of pine trees on the hillside behind. It was designed by E. V. Collier and treated women and children. As built in about 1906, without the side wings, it didn’t look quite so romantic, and the regime within the hospital was equally grim. In 1923 complaints were made that sick girls were made to go out into the surrounding pine forest to saw trees  while kneeling in the snow. [ref: Linda Bryder, Below the Magic Mountain quoted in the New Scientist 14 July 1988 p.63] The Pevsner Guide for Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion published in 2006 describes the building as ‘originally a cheerful Neo-Georgian with red-tiled roofs and green shutters, now very decayed’.

By the early twentieth century the value of the ‘exhalations of turpentine etc’ from Scots Fir trees was being questioned, and instead it was as shelter belts that pine trees continued to play an important role at hospitals. In the second issue of Robert Taylor’s Hospitals Investigator he drew attention to these surviving shelter belts of pines around many of the sites that the Cambridge team visited. It also brought back memories of his own experience of being interned in an isolation hospital as a small child. I remember him telling us that parents were not allowed on the wards, so they would remain outside and could only see their children through the window. At one former isolation hospital he found a shelf under a window, provided so that a parent could kneel on it and see inside.

Here are Robert’s remarks on pine trees:

“In the very first day of fieldwork in Suffolk it was noticed that there was an association between hospitals and pine trees. Tuberculosis sanatoria, cottage hospitals and isolation hospitals all appear with shelter belts; indeed the site of one isolation hospital was completely inaccessible because of the fallen conifers and evergreens. The Beccles War Memorial Hospital appears from amps to have had new planting, and the surviving trees confirm this. Even the isolation hospital where one of us spent a month in 1944 has a belt of pines. It was obviously considered that a shelter belt of conifers afforded a perceptible improvement in the quality of the air. The reasoning behind this seems to smack of black magic and the symbiotic theory of disease, physicians had relatively few methods of cure, and little reliable theory with which to evaluate those methods. A belief in the specific effect of climate was harmless and must have appeared plausible. The first practical application of the theory was at the Royal Sea Bathing Infirmary at Margate in 1791, where consumptives were treated. Nothing more seems to have been done until 1854 when Brehmer believed that he could cure tuberculosis by living in high mountains, and opened an institution in Silesia. The general theory was given a more specific interpretation in 1862 when Dr. L. C. Lane of San Francisco considered that the fragrant smell from the resin of the Sierra Nevada pines was salutary: ‘in chronic pulmonary affections the breathing of such an atmosphere must be productive of a highly salutary influence’. At the same time many people thought that some leaves, particular pine and balsam, are disinfectants, and this idea still lingers with the toilet cleaner industry. In America patients were encouraged to take holidays in areas of differing air; in England that air was brought to the patient by means of sanitary plantations around the hospital, the resinous smell of the trees contribution to the recovery of those within the building. In some cases the hospitals are on such poor soil that birch and conifers are the only sensible trees to plant, as at Ipswich Sanatorium.”

About Harriet Richardson

I am an architectural historian, working on the Survey of London at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. I have worked on surveys of hospital architecture in Scotland and England.
This entry was posted in English Hospitals, isolation hospitals, sanatoria, Scottish Hospitals and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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