#TBT: Corpus Christi's Hilltop hospital housed tuberculosis patients starting in the '40s

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In the early 1900s, Nueces County and Corpus Christi health authorities battled an airborne infectious disease that settled in the lungs and often led to a wasting death for its victims.

Tuberculosis, often called consumption, is an ancient disease caused by the mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria. Though it most often infects the lungs, the bacterium can infect other parts of the body and was considered an epidemic disease for much of human history. Corpus Christi was no exception, and with no cure, members of the Nueces County Tuberculosis Association, formed in 1935, wanted to establish a clinic to treat patients with the disease.

TOP: Articles and photos from the March 29, 1953, Corpus Christi Caller-Times provide details about the new Hilltop Tuberculosis Hospital for Nueces County. Pictured at bottom left of the clipping is Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth Butt, hospital board president. BOTTOM: The former Hilltop hospital in April 1977 after sitting vacant since 1975. The facilities were converted into a community center soon afterward.

They opened a clinic on Caldwell Street in 1939, but as cases increased, a need for more treatment options was evident. In 1943, the association opened the Hilltop Rest Home on Leopard Street in Calallen, a 21-bed facility where patients with tuberculosis could convalesce without infecting their families or others in the community. The facility was frequently filled to capacity, and the association knew a larger facility was needed. A bond election in 1949 passed voter approval and construction began on a new 100-bed, six-wing facility.

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In March 1953, the $800,000 hospital was ready to accept patients. The new structure was a considerable improvement over the rest home, which really was a collection of small shacks to house the patients. The new hospital had numerous rooms, which all opened on to screened porches equipped with deck chairs and tables for patients to get some fresh air. Four wings were dedicated to patient rooms, with another wing housing laundry and kitchen facilities, and an administration and treatment wing with offices, X-ray services, pharmacy and lab services.

And the hospital was needed. By 1955, tuberculosis was declared the top health concern in the county by the local health authorities. The following year, Hilltop hospital became the first facility in the state to enforce a state quarantine law and patients could be incarcerated at the hospital to prevent further spread of the disease. But the rooms weren't needed too often, according to a 1992 interview with the hospital's former medical director.

"The fact we had a lockup room was all most of [the patients] needed to know to keep them from leaving," said Dr. William Anderson, medical director from 1956 to 1962. The lockups did get some use, though. "A lot of them whom we incarcerated had escaped from other TB hospitals."

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As treatment options increased and improved, numbers at the hospital began to drop. When the state opened a free TB hospital in Harlingen, the county made the decision to close Hilltop, despite some patient protests. The last four patients transferred to Harlingen, and Hilltop officially closed in early February 1968. The offices were used as the state's regional tuberculosis control office until 1975.

The buildings sat vacant until members of the Northwest Civic Association requested to do something with the facilities in 1977. The county came up with funds to renovate buildings and opened the old hospital to community meeting rooms, which continue to be used today as Hilltop Community Center.

Allison Ehrlich writes about things to do in South Texas and has a weekly Throwback Thursday column on local history. Support local coverage like this by checking out our subscription options and special offers at Caller.com/subscribe

This article originally appeared on Corpus Christi Caller Times: Corpus Christi's Hilltop hospital housed tuberculosis patients