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PFOP: Bloomington’s Kelso Sanitarium promised to cure all

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The Kelso Sanitarium as it appeared circa 1918 in a postcard published by the Commercial Colortype Co. of Chicago.

From 1894 to 1920, one of the largest and most successful hospitals in Bloomington-Normal was a homeopathic sanitarium run by the husband and wife team of George and Annie Kelso.

Homeopathy, which dates to the work of German physician Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), is a curious form of alternative medicine that reached semi-respectability in the latter half of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Homeopaths believe, among other things, that a disease can be treated by administering low dosages of a substance that, when given in much higher doses to healthy individuals, produces symptoms of that very same disease. Though that seems counterintuitive, this “law of similars” (or “like cures like”) is a basic tenet of homeopathy, as is the idea that ill health is caused by disturbances in one’s vital (or life) force.

The Kelso Sanitarium, located north of downtown on Main Street, employed an eclectic mix of medical practices ranging from the relatively harmless (homeopathic cures) to the dangerous (the use of bizarre electrical devices that bordered on quackery) to the professional (a well-regarded obstetrics department).

This self-described “private sanitarium and surgical hospital,” according to an 1896 advertisement, treated “paralysis, rheumatism, diseases of women, diseases of the eye, fitting of glasses, deafness, rectal diseases, catarrh, facial blemishes and diseases of the stomach, heart and lungs.”

Born in Ontario, Canada, George B. Kelso attended medical school at the University of Michigan. It was there that he met his future wife, Annie E. Caldwell, who had already attended the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia. In 1886, the two graduated from Michigan, and soon thereafter married and settled in Bloomington.

In 1894, the couple established the Bloomington Home Sanitarium (later renamed the Kelso Sanitarium) at 807 N. Main St. They made several additions to a former wood-frame residence, and within a few years their institution featured an elevator, steam heat and other “modern conveniences.” In 1916, the Kelsos purchased the lot immediately to the south and built a modern, four-story brick addition, enlarging the hospital’s patient capacity to 60 beds.

The sanitarium promised to cure all sorts of maladies with all sorts of bizarre devices. In 1896, the Kelsos trumpeted the arrival of the “vibrometer,” a device to relieve “catarrhal deafness” and “noises in the head” via “massage of the ear by musical sounds.” The Kelsos eagerly embraced electricity as a wonder cure, and they claimed to treat “diseases of women”— including tumors, “displacements” and inflammation — with electricity “skillfully applied.”

By 1908, the Kelsos boasted of “mechanical, electrical, hydropathic and light appliances for the treatment of chronic and nervous diseases.” Their fantastical roster of medical machinery employed “static, galvanic, faradic, sinusoidal and high frequency electricity,” as well as “violet rays, solar rays and X-rays.”

On the other hand, many of their homeopathic treatments were of the more New Age variety. “Baths! Baths! Baths!” announced the Kelsos. “Electric, vapor, hot air, medicated, perfumed and salt glows. These baths are curative in disease; pleasant and invigorating in health. We have first-class attendants. Give them a trial.”

At this time, with middle and upper-middle families class separating themselves from the world of hard labor, medical problems were oftentimes more a matter of anxiety and psychological-social stress. It’s no surprise, then, that George and Annie Kelso catered to the needs of this increasingly needy clientele. “Nervous prostration and all nervous systems treated with the rest cure, massage, and electricity,” read a sanitarium notice from 1898. The Kelso’s facility also benefited from the trend among expectant middle-class mothers to favor hospital over at-home births. “An ideal private home for women during confinement, free from care and responsibility,” was the promise in 1908.

Although the Kelsos encountered difficulty — at least early on — being accepted by the local medical community, they were welcomed with open arms into the best social circles, becoming in the process members of Bloomington Country Club. A friendly caricature of George Kelso ran in the March 13, 1914 Pantagraph, accompanied by this little ditty: “He can handle the lancet and pills/To cure all the troublesome ills/In the ball room at night/Or the golf links so bright/He can tango or tee as he wills.”

The Kelsos also operated a successful — and by all accounts professional — nurse training school. By 1919, the sanitarium operated a three-year program in “theoretical and practical training in surgical, obstetrical and general nursing.”

In 1920, the Kelsos sold their hospital to the Mennonite Sanitarium Association (which in short order became Mennonite Hospital). According to contemporary news accounts, the price tag was in the $75,000 to $100,000 range (or $900,000 to $1.2 million in today’s dollars). The Kelsos then maintained a smaller clinic at the corner of Main and Chestnut streets, just south of their former hospital.

George Kelso always held an open mind to alternative treatments. For example, in a January 1930 talk before the local Woman’s Club he spoke of “suggestive therapeutics” whereby one could subtly influence the subconscious and thus restore balance to one’s health. In an earlier talk, he interpreted the Biblical story of Job as a matter of curing affliction through personal will power.

Annie Kelso died in 1927. Seven years later George Kelso sold his practice to Dr. W.S. Fuller, an osteopath, and the Fuller Clinic remained open until World War II. George Kelso passed away on Jan. 27, 1935, at his winter home in St. Petersburg, Fla. The 75-year-old retired physician had remained active by playing volleyball at the Bloomington YMCA. From his orchard in St. Petersburg he always sent a box of wintertime grapefruit to the Bloomington Rotary Club. His last box arrived around the time of his death, and so his fellow Rotarians unpacked and ate the fruit in memory of their lost colleague.

In the 1980s, Mennonite and Brokaw Hospital in Normal merged healthcare systems, and in 1991 Brokaw became BroMenn Regional Medical Center and Mennonite a “lifecare” center. The old Mennonite complex later served as offices for Electrolux Home Care North America (formerly local manufacturer Eureka Co.). Kirk Holdings LLC is now completing demolition of the site. Prior to the old hospital’s razing, Kelso Sanitarium’s 1916 brick addition was still visible from Main Street.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Mennonites continued to operate the nursing school started by the Kelsos. That program survives today as the Mennonite College of Nursing at Illinois State University.

Editor’s note: An earlier, shorter version of this “Page from Our Past” column ran on June 1, 2008.

Bill Kemp is the librarian at the McLean County Museum of History in Bloomington. He can be reached at


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