Frank Merritt, The “Tuberculosis Martyr”

 In late May 1908, several newspapers reported that Frank Merritt, “whose wife and son died of tuberculosis, has at his urgent request been inoculated with the germ of the disease by a New York physician and his case will be watched by the medical profession and an effort made to cure him.” Merritt’s own diagnosis was cited in a published account: “My case of consumption was invited: I feel sick; I am delirious at times, and have a fever, but I am happy, for, if through my efforts a cure for the disease that took my young wife and baby from me long ago, is discovered, I shall die feeling that my life on this earth has not been all in vain.” Merritt was inoculated twice with “bacilli of tuberculosis” taken from a woman patient of Dr. C. C. Carroll, who promised a positive outcome from an injection by means of cataphorisis into the lungs: “I will surely cure him…There is no doubt in my mind about the success of the experiment.” Under headlines such as “Tuberculosis Martyr”; “Makes Himself Sacrifice,” and “Consumptive is Thankful for Disease; Willing to Die in Cause of Science,” newspapers across the country reported on Merritt’s own explanation of his action: “My action was voluntary. Of course I am not anxious to die, but I felt like doing what I have done in the interest of humanity and science.”[i] Yet not all newspapers endorsed this action by Merritt and Carroll, as in this editorial statement from the Los Angeles Herald, which warned that this man “being murdered slowly” was “the first time our civilization has deliberately slaughtered a man in order to help the race.” Despite warning that immediate death was far more likely than a cure, even this editorial ended with an affirmation of the potential for medical science to score “another triumph,” leading this justification: “So, perhaps after all, it may turn out that the experience was worth while.”[ii] The fate of Merritt remains a mystery, as neither newspapers nor any other source record this date of death, suggesting that, perhaps, this treatment did work for him. Further research is needed to clarify the outcome for him and others involved in this story.

[i] Alexandria Gazette, May 29, 1908, p. 2; Bismarck Daily Tribune, May 27, 1908, p. 6; Edgefield Advertiser, June 10, 1908, p. 4; Tensas Gazette, June 5, 1908, p. 3; Nebraska Advertiser, June 5, 1908, p. 4; Washington Times, May 26. 1908, p. 14. A photograph of Frank Merritt appeared in Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, June 11, 1908, p. 55.

[ii] Los Angeles Herald, June 11, 1908, p. 4. See also the condemnation of “needless torture” by The Salt Lake Herald, May 31, 1908, p. 4, and reports of “many protests” from “the New York medical fraternity” in the Washington Times, May 29, 1908, p. 13.

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