Until the early 1900s, tuberculosis was one of the deadliest diseases in the world. Some historians theorize that one in seven humans was killed by the disease prior to the start of the twentieth century. Physicians understood little of the true nature of the illness and consequently believed that it could be cured through rest and exposure to fresh air.
Many people with tuberculosis were confined to sanatoriums, where they were quarantined from the general population and encouraged to spend time outdoors in secluded settings. As an off chute of this movement, public health officials began to experiment with the idea that they could prevent tuberculosis from taking hold in sickly children through the same concept of exposure to fresh air.
The first open-air schools debuted in Europe, but the movement soon spread to the United States. By 1908, the first open-air school had been founded in America. Indiana soon jumped on the bandwagon, opening many of these schools in the first quarter of the twentieth century.
The Indiana Society for the Prevention of Tuberculosis formed with the goal to establish the first open-air school in Indiana. They were fully endorsed by the State Board of Health. In 1913, the society partnered with the Lucretia Mott School on Indianapolis’s east side to open the first open-air classroom in Indiana. They converted a regular classroom in the school for the fresh air concept.
The open-air concept was soon deployed statewide. Fort Wayne followed on the heels of Indianapolis, opening its first fresh air school. Others followed across the state, in urban and rural communities alike.
Open-air schools targeted children who were malnourished, had been exposed to tuberculosis, or were exhibiting pre-tuberculosis symptoms. Public health officials believed that exposing these children to fresh air and sunshine would prevent them from contracting tuberculosis. To aid this goal, windows were kept open year-round, even in winter.
To keep children warm in winter months, they were required to wear snowsuits in the classroom. Many of the children complained of being cold, despite the winter gear.
Unlike a regular classroom, open-air schools emphasized physical activity throughout the school day. Children participated in academics, but also spent time gardening, playing outdoors, and learning about personal hygiene. They were also served nutritious meals and provided at least one rest a day.
While academic work was included in the daily routine, it was not a focus. As a result, the schools eventually caught some flak for not being academically challenging. This would eventually be a contributing factor to their demise.
Today, few people are aware of the history of the open-air school in Indiana. By the 1930s, the short reign of these schools in Indiana came to an end. Physicians had finally begun to understand the true cause of tuberculosis and thus understood that fresh air could not prevent or cure the disease. By the start of World War II, an effective antibiotic treatment for the illness had been developed.