Historical essay
Living in Isolation and Connecting through Reading, 1930–1946

Living in Isolation and Connecting through Reading, 1930–1946

Jennifer Burek Pierce

Amid all the dramatic headlines about COVID-19, news stories describe how people now share anniversaries, birthdays, and other occasions with windows between them to prevent the spread of infection to those most vulnerable to its consequences. These twenty-first century encounters remind me of early twentieth-century letters I read in the Iowa Women’s Archives, written during the decades when tuberculosis patients were sent to sanatoria to receive care and prevent the spread of the disease. Before antibiotics, distance was a means of disease prevention, and infectious patients faced stigma because healthy people feared contracting illness. Where we now conduct our lives over Zoom and FaceTime, then, the written word fostered relationships across distances.

Wife, mother, and poet Marjorie McVicker Sutcliffe was admitted to the sanatorium four miles outside Norton, Kansas twice during the 1930s and ’40s, before being allowed to self-quarantine at home for the final stage of her recovery.1 From a distance, the sanatorium seemed like a pastoral setting: tall cottonwood trees shaded the bend of a clear, rushing creek, and the road from the train station wound past lawns and gardens toward the sanatorium’s clean brick buildings with large, white‐trimmed windows and porches. Beyond this cluster of buildings, dairy cows grazed. A patient like Marjorie would have noticed how far the Kansas State Tuberculosis Sanatorium was from anywhere else. Often, state statutes and local laws required tuberculosis patients to isolate themselves either in their homes or at sanatoria like the one near Norton. Its relative remoteness reflected the fear and misunderstanding of tuberculosis.2

The first time Marjorie visited the sanatorium, she left behind friends and family; later, her husband John William Sutcliffe, whom she called Bill, cared for their two young daughters while she was away. In her memoir Grandma Cherry’s Spoon, she recalled a day when her husband drove hours from their home and his veterinary practice in Audubon, Iowa so that he and their daughters could stand where she could see them from a sanatorium window.3 Such distant glimpses of her family were infrequent; usually, she spent her time reading and writing them letters.

One of Marjorie McVicker Sutcliffe’s diary entries. (Courtesy of Iowa Women’s Archives, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa.)

Writing and reading expanded her sanatorium-bound life, bringing her closer to people whom she loved but could not see. Marjorie’s voice was strong, engaged, and even playful as she wrestled with the problems of illness, loneliness, and the need to provide for herself and, later, for her family. Once, as she began a biography of Marie Curie, Marjorie teased that she could see herself in the depiction of the noted scientist on the page: “When I first began to read about her I laughed at the fun I should have in listing for you all the traits I have in common with the Great Woman — blonde hair, stubbornness, disreputable housekeeper, bad cook — slow at putting children to bed.”4 Elsewhere she explained the way books and letters calmed her fears as she coped with displacement, living among strangers, and uncertain treatment outcomes.

A number of specialists who founded sanatoria in the American West during these years endorsed the role of literature in patients’ lives. As Dr. Gerald B. Webb of Colorado wrote, “By far the greatest part of the treatment consists in the management of a kind of interminable convalescence, which taxes and tests the endurance and the intelligence of patient and doctor.” Reading, the physician argued, solved the problem.5 His perhaps idealistic premise nonetheless recognized the need to consider mind and body during treatment. As Katherine Ott has explained, tuberculosis “was a disease not just of body, but also of mind and of spirit.”6

Janice M. Morse and Joy L. Johnson urge us to understand that “the ill person does not exist in isolation. … The patient had a life before being institutionalized … and anticipates the future.”7 Marjorie’s letters vividly convey these connections. Before they married, she corresponded with Bill, and she later remembered the arrival of mail as “the highlight of our days” at the sanatorium.8 She wrote to him, “Darling, I need you like the blossom needs the sun. Here I have neither – only your daily letters which bring sufficient light to keep me alive and fill me with hope.”9

Letter from Bill to Marjorie. (Courtesy of Iowa Women’s Archives, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa.)

With Bill, she created a life on paper, rather than focusing on her health. Marjorie responded to Bill’s stories about pest control in the fields and fishing with her own accounts of local insects or the possibilities of a nearby stream. She described to him activities intended to restore a healthful vigor to the sanatorium residents, like a trip to the Colorado mountains, while deemphasizing what she once called the mandatory “hours of rest.”10 She threw herself into supporting his aspirations to publish cartoons that depicted American farming life, writing rhyming couplet captions for his images and acting as a literary agent of sorts, composing cover letters and corresponding with editors who might publish Bill’s work, then relaying their feedback to him.11 Marjorie invested considerable energy in these efforts, despite her doctors’ reservations about how much time at the typewriter could be good for her.12 To Bill she explained that her own sense of rest came from his letters, which often included illustrations, and not the regime at the sanatorium. “That crazy jolly letter of yours waiting for me at noon gave me the needed relaxation,” she wrote in 1936.13

Marjorie McVicker Sutcliffe’s tuberculosis diary. (Courtesy of Iowa Women’s Archives, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa.)

Additionally, Marjorie filled a diary with magazine and newspaper clippings, along with her descriptions of books and other details. Marjorie depended on books and poetry to provide her with insight into the challenges posed by her health. She transcribed poetry from writers including Edgar Guest, Homer, and Langston Hughes, much of which described the need to struggle valiantly against difficulty. These quotations often echoed themes in her letters, as when she noted that a character in Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch “had a sunny nature that sought, like a flower in a dark place, for the light.”14

Her diary also provides glimpses of literary life at the sanatorium, where poetry was important. Marjorie pasted a poem given to her by a recently deceased patient named Georgia into the pages of the diary, wondering whether it was composed during silent hours of rest. Her comments on this woman’s verse remembered their friendship, too: “We were pals on the same porch for 21 months – never being separated more than an hour at a time.”15 She indicated that the sanatorium’s supervising physician also wrote poetry, but not the sort she wrote and enjoyed. Later, Marjorie’s friends helped her publish a poetry chapbook, which cheered her considerably, as did the fan mail she received when her verse was published in regional newspapers.16 Her poems earned her small amounts of money, too.

One of Marjorie McVicker Sutcliffe’s poems. (Courtesy of Iowa Women’s Archives, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa.)

Later, Marjorie earnestly hoped that her memoir would prevent others from having to go through similar struggles and, barring that, that those who still suffered would receive sympathy and warmth, rather than the chilly isolation of institutional care. She read and wrote to craft a life that had little to do with the regimen of the sanatorium. On paper, it was possible to assert an identity not confined by illness and the boundaries of treatment plans. Marjorie’s letters celebrated the family she loved and their lives together. Her writing bridged, as she told her husband, “the trail that leads to Hays” and home, even when only letters could undertake that journey.

As stay-at-home orders and days of isolation stretch into the future, separating us from friends and family, Marjorie’s accounts of living with incurable illness and quarantine no longer seem like an unimaginably distant past. Today, we share her sense of uncertainty, her need to be in touch with friends and family, and her determined efforts to be good-natured amid the strain caused by separation and its disruptions. Her reliance on the written word also echoes in the present. Friends promise to send hand-written notes, publishers promote the social media hashtag #BooksConnectUs, and the actor Patrick Stewart provides daily videos of himself reading Shakespeare’s sonnets to tide us over as we wait for the changes that will allow us to connect again as we did before. Our own histories are being collected, too, and the evening news reports on those who have experienced COVID-19 as physicians, caretakers, and patients. Disease threatens to define our days; the letters and the stories, the books and the poems that we share testify to the ways that these weeks are about more than illness and loss. With words, we can remember and reveal recovery and hope.

Further Reading

Ann Jurecic, Illness as Narrative (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012).

Joan Shelley Rubin, Songs of Ourselves: The Uses of Poetry in America (Belknap Press, 2010).

Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1978).


  1. Marjorie McVicker Sutcliffe’s papers are held by the Iowa Women’s Archives in The University of Iowa Libraries, as part of the Judith Sutcliffe Papers (Collection No. IWA0067). Earlier versions of this research were presented at the American Association for the History of Medicine meeting and the IWA’s 2015 Women’s History Month Lecture. An Arts and Humanities Initiative (AHI) Grant from the University of Iowa Access supported my access to additional archives and special collections. Return to text.
  2. National Tuberculosis Association, Tuberculosis Hospital and Sanatorium Directory: A Directory of Sanatoria, Preventoria, and General Hospitals Having Departments for Tuberculosis Patients (New York: National Tuberculosis Association, 1938), accessed in Local History, Pikes Peak Library District, Colorado Springs, Colorado; see also Sheila M. Rothman, Living in the Shadow of Death: Tuberculosis and the Social Experience of Illness in American History (Basic Books, 1994), 188–93. Return to text.
  3. Marjorie McVicker Sutcliffe with Judy Sutcliffe, Grandma Cherry’s Spoon: A Story of Tuberculosis (Geronima Press, 1991). Return to text.
  4. Marjorie McVicker Sutcliffe, My Everyday Diary, May 23, [c. 1946] series 9, box 15, Judith Sutcliffe Papers, Iowa Women’s Archives. Return to text.
  5. Gerald B. Webb and Charles T. Ryder, Recovery Record: For Use in Tuberculosis (Paul B. Hoeber, 1923), 25–26. Accessed at Local History, Pikes Peak Library District, Colorado Springs, Colorado. Return to text.
  6. Katherine Ott, Fevered Lives: Tuberculosis in American Culture Since 1870 (Harvard University Press, 1996), 1. Return to text.
  7. Janice M. Morse and Joy L. Johnson, The Illness Experience: Dimensions of Suffering (Sage, 1991), 3–4. Return to text.
  8. Sutcliffe and Sutcliffe, Grandma Cherry’s Spoon, 44. Return to text.
  9. Marjorie McVicker Sutcliffe, My Thoughts of Bill, August 8, 1946, diary, series 9, box 15, Judith Sutcliffe Papers, Iowa Women’s Archives. Return to text.
  10. Sutcliffe, November 1, [c. 1946], diary. Return to text.
  11. Marjorie McVicker Sutcliffe to Bill Sutcliffe, series 9, January–May 1938, Judith Sutcliffe Papers, Iowa Women’s Archives. See, for example, January 20, 1938. Return to text.
  12. Sutcliffe and Sutcliffe, Grandma Cherry’s Spoon, 48. Return to text.
  13. Marjorie McVicker Sutcliffe to Bill Sutcliffe, July 17, 1936, series 9, box 15, Judith Sutcliffe Papers, Iowa Women’s Archives. Return to text.
  14. Sutcliffe, July 6, [c. 1946], diary. Return to text.
  15. Sutcliffe, Undated Material at End, diary. Return to text.
  16. Sutcliffe and Sutcliffe, Grandma Cherry’s Spoon, 48. Return to text.

Featured image caption: Norton State Tuberculosis Sanitorium, Norton, Kansas. (Courtesy Kansas Historical Society)

Jennifer Burek Pierce is associate professor in the School of Library and Information Science at The University of Iowa, where she has a joint appointment with the Center for the Book. Her latest book, Narratives, Nerdfighters, and New Media, will be released by the University of Iowa Press in 2020. She has won research fellowships from the American Antiquarian Society; Winterthur Museum, Library, and Gardens; and most recently, the De Grummond Children’s Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi.