KODIAK — More than half a century ago, before king crabs were the royalty of Kodiak’s fishery, ships sailed from the island to hunt a more elusive foe — tuberculosis.
From 1945 to 1956, the hospital ships Hygene, Health and Yukon Health cruised the bays and rivers of rural Alaska, waging a successful war against a disease that afflicted many in the territory.
Now, Juneauite and Harvard University student Kirsten Jorgensen is attempting to compile the history of these ships, and she is asking for the help of people in the Kodiak Archipelago.
“The more personal stories and experiences I hear, the more well rounded the history I can present,” she said from Juneau, where she has been visiting the state archives before flying back to Harvard.
Jorgensen said she wants to uncover a piece of history that related to her home but wasn’t well understood.
“I stumbled across these boats that were used in the ’40s and ’50s to deliver health care to rural coastal communities,” she said. “The further I delved into it, the more I realized Alaska at the time was facing some of the highest rates of tuberculosis in the world.”
Alaskans along the Yukon River had an 89 percent chance of getting tuberculosis. On the Alaska Peninsula and in the Aleutian Islands, that chance was 30 to 40 percent, and polio was still a major threat.
To address the problem, the U.S. Public Health Service converted three World War II surplus ships into mobile hospitals. They could carry far more equipment than airplanes, at a fraction of the cost.
“A lot of what the health ships did was almost a survey,” Jorgensen said. At each village on their route, the ships performed X-rays to check for tuberculosis, performed physical exams, checked for crippled children, and inspected cases of venereal disease.
“They provided any sort of care they could as needed,” Jorgensen said. “A lot of the communities these boats visited had never seen a doctor, ever.”
In the end, the program was wildly successful, reducing tuberculosis deaths from hundreds in the 1940s to just a handful by the mid-1950s. Jorgensen said the reaction to the program, according to interviews she has conducted so far, was entirely positive.
But Jorgensen said that may simply mean she hasn’t reached enough people.
“Rarely when you’re working with people does anything go perfectly,” she said. “Maybe you hear from 90 people, and the next person says, ‘No, this is not good.’ … That may be a bad thing in a science experiment, but it’s a good thing in a history.”
She particularly needs people from the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutians to get in contact with her to share their stories.
“The people in the Aleutians just really were sometimes without any contact other than the ships,” she said. “That’s a really interesting perspective to get in terms of what a difference the boat made or didn’t.”
Jorgensen said she doesn’t expect her project to be finished until spring 2012, so there is plenty of time for people to get in touch with her, but sooner is better.
“I’m looking to hear from people between now and December,” she said.
Jorgensen can be reached at 907-321-4448 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Mirror editor James Brooks at email@example.com.