Episode 179: The Black Angels with Maria Smilios
This episode of Across The Margin: The Podcast presents an interview with Maria Smilios, a New York City native who has a Master of Arts in religion and literature from Boston University, where she was a Luce Scholar and a Presidential Scholar. Smilios spent five years at Springer Science & Business Media as development editor in the biomedical sciences, and has written for The Guardian, American Nurse, The Forward, Narratively, The Rumpus, and DAME Magazine. Her book, The Black Angels — the focus of this episode — tells the untold story of the nurses who helped cure tuberculosis. Nearly a century before the COVID-19 pandemic upended life as we know it, a devastating tuberculosis epidemic was ravaging hospitals across the country. In those dark, pre-antibiotic days, the disease claimed the lives of 1 in 7 Americans. In the United States alone, it killed over 5.6 million people in the first half of the twentieth century. Nowhere was TB more rampant than in New York City, where it spread like wildfire through the tenements, decimating the city’s poorest residents and communities of color. The city’s hospital system was already overwhelmed when, in 1929, the white nurses at Staten Island’s Sea View Hospital began quitting en masse. Pushed to the brink of a major labor crisis and fearing a public health catastrophe, city health officials made a call for Black female nurses seeking to work on the frontlines, promising them good pay, education, housing, and employment free from the constraints of Jim Crow. Spanning the Great Depression and moving through World War II and beyond, The Black Angels puts these women back at the center of this riveting story by spotlighting the twenty-plus years they spent battling the disease at Sea View. Using first-hand interviews and never-before-accessed archives, Smilios details how they labored under inconceivable conditions, putting in 14-hour days caring for people who lay waiting to die or, worse, become “guinea pigs” to test experimental (and often deadly) drugs at a facility that was understaffed, unregulated, and marred by rampant racism. Their narrative is interspersed with the parallel story of the tuberculosis cure, a miracle of public health policy that couldn’t have happened without the work of the nurses at Sea View. In this episode host Michael Shields and Maria Smilios explore just how terribly tuberculous was riddling the United States (and particularly New York City) and the birth of the Sea View treatment center in Staten Island where a cure was eventually brought into being. They celebrate the Black Angels, Black nurses who worked at the hospital who answered a call to help, and eventually changed the world. They discuss how racial discrimination affected the nurses, both in the deep South also upon their landing in New York. They also discuss the drug trials that led to the cure, the patent wars that followed, and so much more.
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