This Was Then: The Sanitarium

‘Come ye apart and rest a while.’

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Martha’s Vineyard was widely promoted in the late 1800s and early 1900s as a place of healing. The ad-packed 1932 booklet titled “Martha’s Vineyard: The Isle of Dreams and Health” gushes over the Island’s moderate temperatures, “fresh air and pure water,” “healthful walks,” and “wholesome entertainment … to improve your mind and body.” It’s hard to argue with that.

Chartmaker George Eldridge, in his 1889 book, “Martha’s Vineyard: Its History and Advantages as a Health and Summer Resort,” declared that he was himself “a practical demonstration of what the singularly salubrious climate of this Island has done to restore him to health.” He goes on to quote Edgartown native Dr. George B. Cornell of Brooklyn: “The island is a grand sanitarium to which thousands of invalids would resort were they conscious of the health-restoring, soul-reviving, strength-imparting qualities of those natural elements and cheerful surroundings which one can so freely find on Martha’s Vineyard.” Even the purity of Tashmoo spring water was promoted on the grounds that bathing in it would remove tan and freckles.

So in 1903, almost 20 years before the opening of the nearby Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, a remarkable summertime “Sanitarium by the sea” was established in the Eastville section of Oak Bluffs, on the corner of Temahigen Avenue and Dover Street. It offered baths, massages, gynecological services, and experimental electric shock therapy to convalescents and “neuresthenics” in a homelike environment by the seashore. The sanitarium was owned and operated by a groundbreaking physician: Dr. Laura Gustin-Mackie, M.D., of Attleboro.

Dr. Gustin-Mackie was born in Maine, the daughter of the Rev. Ellen Grant-Gustin, a renowned pastor. (Called “one of the pioneer women in the American pulpit,” Pastor Grant-Gustin was declared by the New York Times, on rather scant evidence, to be the second or third woman to ever be ordained into the ministry in this country. For many years, Grant-Gustin was the only ordained female pastor in New England.)

Dr. Gustin-Mackie was an 1874 graduate of the Women’s Medical College of Connecticut and the City College of New York. She married a fellow physician, Dr. George Mackie of New Bedford. (The marriage ceremony was performed by her mother, Minister Grant-Gustin.) The young couple soon moved to Attleboro, where they each opened medical practices. In 1877, their son, George Mackie Jr., was born.

In 1888, Gustin-Mackie founded the Attleborough Home Sanitarium, which specialized in “nervous diseases and gynaecology.” She limited her initial inpatient clientele to 10 patients. (“One of the advantages of a small Sanitarium being that each becomes a member of the Physician’s family and under constant observation,” she explained in one ad.)

Then in 1889, a tragedy occurred. Twelve-year-old George Jr. and a friend were crossing the train tracks in Taunton when the New York Express struck them, killing both boys and their horse. Upon losing their only child, their marriage soon dissolved. (In 1904, George Sr. appeared in the news again when the two monkeys he kept in an upstairs menagerie lit some matches and nearly burned his house down.)

Dr. Gustin-Mackie continued to operate her sanitarium in Attleboro, specializing in care for “mild mental and nervous disease.” Her aging parents assisted her. Her ads often specified “no insane,” but she occasionally faced mental health crises amongst her patients. (One 1902 news item titled “Mrs. Blood Goes Away” reported that one of the “inmates” had disappeared without a trace after being “out of her head for several days.”)

In 1898, Dr. Guston-Mackie began opening a “summer home” for her Sanitarium. She opened her first in the Peace Haven Cottage in the Brant Rock neighborhood of Marshfield. In early 1900, she tried opening a winter home in Southern Pines, N.C. Both were short-lived.

Finally, in 1903, Dr. Gustin-Mackie purchased a property in the Bellevue Heights development of Oak Bluffs, not far from the corner of New York Avenue and Temahigan Avenue, overlooking outer Vineyard Haven Harbor. Since 1890, this building had been a hotel known as the Bellevue, or Bellevue House, run by Capt. James and Margaret Claghorn (capacity: 75.)

Gustin-Mackie opened the Harbor View Sanitarium in this old Eastville hotel in the summer of 1903. It was later known also as the Attleboro and Martha’s Vineyard Sanitarium. She described it as having “fine estate, beautiful harbor and country views, pure water, modern plumbing,” in her ads; “Come ye apart and rest a while.” The sanitarium targeted its services to “weary brain workers,” giving discounts to teachers and other professionals.

In addition to diet, massage, and hot saltwater baths, Dr. Gustin-Mackie was a pioneer in the therapeutic use of electricity for “ovarian pain, leucorrhoea, and other conditions arising from local pelvic disturbance” such as uterine fibroids. In 1903, she presented a paper at the American Electrotherapeutic Association, reviewed by the American Medical Association, titled “A Year’s Work of Electrotherapy.” In it, according to the AMA review, “she spoke of the great relief that she had observed from the use of electricity in anemic women suffering from ovarian pain and various pelvic disturbances.” The Attleboro and Martha’s Vineyard Sanitarium was listed as one of only two gynecological sanitariums in the state of Massachusetts in 1905.

Dr. Gustin-Mackie also experimented with the use of electrotherapy in dermatology. During her 1906 season on the Vineyard, she published a paper titled “The Cosmetic Value of Electricity” in the Journal of Advanced Therapeutics, in which she described her successes in removing facial hair and blemishes by means of electricity. During 10 or 15 sessions of up to 20 minutes each (which she termed “séances”), a “high-frequency tube” was electrically discharged onto the patient’s skin, sometimes through a No. 12 sewing needle, until “the patient complained of the stinging and smarting.” In her paper, she summarized nine cases of male and female patients, aged 6 to 70, presumably at least some of them treated in her Oak Bluffs facility, in which she used electricity to treat acne, eczema, keloidal scars, fungal infections, and baldness, sometimes applying as much as 30 milliamperes of current. (Tip: Don’t try this at home. 30mA of current is enough to cause loss of muscular control, and in some cases may even precipitate the necessity for actual séances.)

The sanitarium staff was brought over to the Vineyard from Attleboro each summer. They included nurses Rose McBrien and Mary Kelleher, Irish immigrants who had initially worked as cooks and servants for the Gustin family. The sanitarium’s coachman and driver was Claude Allen, a Black man from North Carolina who had also begun as a Gustin family servant.

The summer of 1908 was evidently the final season of the Martha’s Vineyard Sanitarium in Eastville. In April 1910, Dr. Gustin-Mackie sold the property to Edwin Treat, who opened a school for boys in the building. (Treat went into foreclosure and ultimately lost the property in 1924. The building was later demolished, although the steps out front are still visible on Temahigan Avenue.)

Dr. Gustin-Mackie went on to have a long and distinguished career in Attleboro. In 1907, the Doctors’ Club of Attleboro elected her president. She helped found Sturdy Memorial Hospital in Attleboro, and served on its executive committee. Her niece, Dr. Genevieve Gustin, “Attleboro’s Girl Doctor,” would go on to become a respected physician at the Institute for the Feeble Minded in Wrentham. Dr. Gustin-Mackie continued to operate the Attleboro Home Sanitarium until just a few years before her death in 1930.

1 COMMENT

  1. Another great article, Chris! I never knew anything about this, though I was aware of the large steps on Temahegan. I was intrigued by them because they suggested a once-grand building. I wonder if the Allen family I grew up with (Flora, Ralph, Herb etc.) descend from the Mr. Allen you mention in the story.

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