Author’s note: The following is an excerpt from a historical novel set in Asheville, NC; then a hotbed of tuberculosis 'climate-cure’ sanitariums. The reminiscing narrator (Champ Burgin) and his father (“Pops”) were employed throughout their lives by Dr Karl von Ruck at his popular Winyah Sanitarium. Dr von Ruck created and sold various extracts that he claimed could be used as vaccine, test, and cure for tuberculosis. The height of his fame came after publication of his May 1912 JAMA article.1 In 1913, he pleaded with the Surgeon General and President Wilson to validate his methods. A government research team was sent to Asheville and sparks began to fly …
The long table near the new laboratory sink was arrayed with burners, porcelains, filters and glass. The door was open for the breeze and Pops quietly swept the hall outside, soft of feet to ease the resting of the guests.
Dr von Ruck spoke to his rabbits that night, a few peering out from their soiled cages. “It is high time I turn the bacteria into their own enemy. To fashion them into ghosts to haunt their very selves,” he said tapping his fingertips urgently.
The doctor’s deep tone made it easy for Pops to overhear despite the high hissing flames ever-present in the laboratory.
Von Ruck murmured, “In that microscope lens, I see them alive in their clumps and clusters. So perfect and small, so elegant and deadly. Projected large to my eye, they are laughing back. All over the world teasing as we, the best men, try to outsmart them.”
Pointing around the room, he continued, “I can burn the germs in a dish, boil them in a flask, smash them into a paste. I can damage their tiny frames like I am a Goliath. Here in the laboratory, I lord over them. But let live ones loose in a small child or a wayward poet or you, a good rabbit, and consumption is the victor. Still, it is not too late for that victor to be spoiled.”
During these long night sessions, the science room odors only intensified out into the sanitarium halls. Pops knew the easy whiffs of alcohol, cedar, and feces from his morning rounds cleaning the rabbit cages. But even outside the room, that lancing rancid boil smell cut through, pushing back his face.
Von Ruck paced the bay of steamed windows, pausing to wipe a pane saying, “Here in this room with these liquids, heat, and glass, I will scratch the next surface.” He spun to face the cages, “Manipulating dead germs into a safer, more hollow form to test on you.”
Pops swept past the door again, curious and a bit worried about his dramatic and increasingly exhausted boss. He peered in. Most of the rabbits were now asleep.
“I have learned it is foolish,” the doctor professed, "to inject just any dead form of tubercular germ into a fine, healthy rabbit. I will have to train you, the host, to not simply harbor the enemy and eventually succumb. I will forge an extract to strengthen your core defenses, so you can revenge the plague.”
From the beginning, my father said that von Ruck rarely slept, working long after nightfall, breaking only to drift and jabber through the ornate halls of lungers.
Pops began to tell people that he was working for “The Night Doctor.” Trouble was that the nickname spread. And trouble it was because Night Doctors were bad men in stories we passed as children. Old legends from city places about white doctors kidnapping black children in the night to use for experiments. Or gravedigging our Great-grands to use their bodies in anatomy school.
Who knows proof of those evils? Mother knew before the war that some Carolina doctors abused their slaves by testing them with hellish surgeries.
So black folks calling a white man “The Night Doctor” held no quaint charm. At first, renaming von Ruck was a chuckle to me because he seemed only dangerous to small animals. But in time, it made the neighborhood wonder why we would work for that kind of a man. An experimenting man, you know? Sometimes with blood red hands from killing God’s creatures. Folks would even say he’d tease and torture these beasts he’d buy, not to eat, mind you, but to work on.
1. Von Ruck K. A practical method of prophylactic immunization against tuberculosis: A preliminary announcement. JAMA 1912;LVIII(20:1504-7. DOI: https:///doi.org/10.1001/jama.1912.04260050180007