Mary Lapham historical marker

Mary Lapham 1860-1936 (Q-60)

Physician; innovator in treatment of tuberculosis. Served in Europe, WWI; operated a sanatorium here, 1908-1918.

Location: US 64 (North Fourth Street) 1/3 mile north of Main Street in Highlands
County: Macon
Original Date Cast: 2018

Born in Northfield, Michigan, in 1860, Mary Emily Lapham was fascinated with the medical profession from childhood. Although her father would not permit her to prepare for a profession in that field, she secretly studied medicine while working in the local bank as a cashier, and later studied nursing at the University of Michigan.

Following her father’s death in 1893, she travelled with two friends, Carolyn Baker and Edith Dougall, as well as Edith’s adopted daughter, Valerie. Edith had recovered recently from a latent tubercular infection. Lapham suggested that they stay at Highlands, where they lodged together for four years before moving to a house on Satulah Mountain which they dubbed “Faraway.” Although active in the social life of the Highlands, Lapham remained preoccupied with issues concerning health and the need for better medical care in the community. She entered the Women’s Medical College of Philadelphia, graduating with an M.D. in 1900, and pursued further studies at the University of Munich.

While studying abroad, Lapham became particularly interested in tuberculosis and its treatment. She studied and observed the method of treating tuberculosis via artificial pneumothorax, in which nitrogen was injected into a tubercular lung, causing a gradual compression that would give it the opportunity to heal. Returning to Highlands, she purchased a three-story house to function as the center of a sanatorium. Located upon a fifteen-acre tract, the Highland Camp Sanatorium comprised the house and sixty tent-homes. It opened in November 1908.

Lapham was the first physician in the U.S. to successfully use the artificial pneumothorax treatment for pulmonary tuberculosis, as well as the first to publish her results. Some of her addresses were published verbatim in North Carolina newspapers. Her pioneering efforts received national attention and led over the succeeding decades to the widespread adoption of nitrogen injection treatment.

A fire destroyed the sanatorium’s x-ray machine in February 1918, which ended Lapham’s direct involvement. Although her nurse, a local woman, continued to care for tuberculosis patients in tent-homes set up on her family’s grounds, Lapham herself went to Europe to serve in the Red Cross during the last days of World War I. Following the end of hostilities, she became director of medical services for the Red Cross in Prague, Czechoslovakia. While in Prague, Lapham worked with the Czechoslovakian Red Cross to treat hundreds of refugee children.

Lapham’s health declined during her time in Europe, and she returned to the United States in 1920. She continued to work in the field of tuberculosis research at John Hopkins University and the University of Pennsylvania before retiring to St. Augustine in 1926. She spent her summers at Highlands, residing with Carolyn Baker and Valerie Dougall. Besides her pioneering work in the field of tuberculosis treatment, Lapham was also a staunch supporter of women’s suffrage. She died of heart disease in 1936 and is buried in Detroit.

Randolph P. Shaffner, Heart of the Blue Ridge: Highlands, North Carolina (2004)
“Dr. Mary E. Lapham,” Inspirational Women of World War One, 1936-american-ww1.html
Raleigh Times, February 24, 1911
Asheville-Gazette News, October 28, 1912
Salisbury Evening Post, May 8, 1913; September 26, 1912
Wilmington Morning Star, June 19, 1910; January 15, 1911; December 7, 1913; and November 12, 1915
Charlotte News, June 7, 1915
Greensboro Daily News, December 14, 1913, June 16, 1915
(Hickory) Times-Mercury, February 16, 1910
(Charlotte) Evening Chronicle, October 22, 1912
High Point Enterprise, October 24, 1912

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