A Look Back: Curing Trachoma In The Mountains

Hindman Settlement School’s mission since its inception has not been to simply educate the people of the mountains, but also to enrich the surrounding community through a variety of programs and services.  This goal has been met in many different ways over the years, but I want to take this time to look back at one of the school’s first and most significant community services; the campaign to eradicate trachoma in the Appalachian mountains.

Trachoma is an eye disease that leads to eventual blindness and today has been eliminated in much of the industrialized world.  In the early 20th century however, due to inadequate sanitation and a lack of healthcare the disease plagued the people of eastern Kentucky.  May Stone and Katherine Pettit recognized the problem when starting the school, but not having the resources to remedy it, sent the most severe cases to doctors in Lexington and Louisville.

One of these doctors, Joseph Stucky, noticed that this disease was concentrated in only his patients from the mountains and, at the invitation of the Settlement, held his first trachoma clinic in the fall of 1911 in Hindman.  At this clinic, Dr. Stucky could provide early intervention services to the disease mountain people called “sore eyes” or “cat tracks” and prevent the progressing blindness.

Trachoma clinic tent set up on the Hindman Settlement School campus.

Dr. Stucky and his nurses arrive in Hindman.

After a third clinic held in the fall of 1912 and appeals to the Department of Health, the federal government sent John McMullen, assistant surgeon general, to assist Stucky in further treatment and research in Knott County.  In 1913 the federal government established the first trachoma hospital in Hindman.  With this new government support, Dr. Stucky and Hindman Settlement School were able to reach thousands more affected individuals throughout the mountains.  

Patients would arrive at the clinic with visors, bandages, and handkerchiefs covering their eyes because of the irritation caused by the disease.

Dr. Stucky and the nurses taking a break during one of the clinics.

Dr. Stucky examining a patient inside a tent.

This movement to treat trachoma led to a much larger public health education movement in the area. Nurse Harriet Butler gave lectures on how to deal with other contagious diseases and a new twenty-one bed hospital was built to support health care in the community.  Every Hindman Settlement School student was vaccinated and the school supported programs vaccinating children throughout the county.

Nurse Harriet Butler at a trachoma clinic.  She would later go on to serve as the public health education nurse for the school.

The hospital built on the school’s campus.

Because of the school’s early involvement and identification of this public health crisis, many mountain people were able to receive the care they deserved.  Public health programs would continue to be a focus of the school in the years that followed.  Today, the Stucky Building on our campus is named in honor of the work that Dr. Stucky performed so many years ago.