During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, thousands of health-seekers traveled to the Pikes Peak region in search of a cure. Next to choosing a beneficial climate, selecting an appropriate physician was paramount. Chasing the cure could take months or even years, and finding the right specialist could mean the difference between life and death, or comfort versus despair. For over five decades, thousands of invalids sought the care of Dr. Gerald B. Webb of Colorado Springs. Most of his patients were either recommended by physicians in the East or Europe who knew of his reputation, or other invalids who raved about his cheerful bedside manner and ability to get them well.
Former journalist turned local historian Marshall Sprague noted, “…a sick man is a sensitive man. His thoughts are bound to dwell on dying…His doctor may hold his soul in his hand. At least that is how it was with me back there in Glockner so long ago. Dr. Webb stood between me and the dark. He made me well, but besides that it was his gift to pass his own love of life on to me; to pass his interest in living on to me; to make me want to live as passionately as he himself wanted to live. And he did that for thousands…”
Dr. Webb saw patients in his home office at 1222 North Cascade Avenue, made house calls to residences and boarding houses, in addition to regularly scheduled visits to every sanatorium in the region. Like most other local physicians, Webb cared for invalids regardless of their ability to pay. Webb “forgot” to send bills to needy patients, often reaching into his own pockets to give them money and personal loans. According to author Helen Clapesattle, Dr. Webb provided free care to an extraordinary number of fellow physicians and their families stating, “I am always glad to do anything I can to help a member of the profession.”
Contrary to the earlier era when patients were encouraged to travel abroad or embrace an active, outdoor lifestyle, a rest cure supervised by a tuberculosis specialist was the most effective regimen. Patients chased the cure in the open-air as many hours a day as possible. Specialists like Dr. Webb provided specific diagnoses which resulted in specialized diets, physical restrictions, medicines and supplements, x-rays and surgical procedures, and perhaps most importantly, encouragement. Prior to the discovery of Streptomycin and other antibiotics to cure TB, the rest cure was a patient’s best hope. Webb’s reputation for consistent, effective application of the rest cure was unsurpassed in the region.
Despite his occasional use of artificial pneumothorax to deflate a patient’s diseased lung to allow it to rest and heal, Webb resisted more invasive surgical techniques. After witnessing a thoracoplasty procedure where parts or entire lobes of lungs were removed, and phrenicectomy, the surgical removal of part of the phrenic nerve to collapse a diseased lung by paralyzing the diaphragm, Webb refused to perform them. He believed the procedures too dangerous with no significant benefits to the patient.
Instead, Dr. Webb focused his clinical work on providing earlier and more accurate diagnoses of TB. In a 1917 report to the National Tuberculosis Association that Webb co-authored with Drs. Gilbert and Forster they stated, “In the last six years several hundred cases of pulmonary tuberculosis have passed through our hands at Cragmor Sanatorium. Among them we have seen many previous errors in diagnosis…” Webb was renowned for his ability to “hear and interpret” sounds heard through his stethoscope and took exhaustive case histories of every patient.
Dr. Webb conducted experiments in immunology and served as the first president of the American Association of Immunologistsfrom 1913-1915. In 1924 he founded the Colorado Foundation for Research in Tuberculosiswhich is now the Webb-Waring Center at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. For many years he conducted the Colorado School for Tuberculosis in Colorado Springs which trained hundreds of physicians and established Dr. Webb as a recognized authority on the treatment of TB.
As with many physicians in Colorado, Gerald Webb’s connection to tuberculosis was deeply personal. Trained at Guys Hospital in London, Dr. Webb immigrated in 1894 with his American wife Jenny. Their search for a cure for Jenny’s tuberculosis eventually led them to the Pikes Peak Region. After earning his M.D. from the University of Denver in 1896, Webb opened a practice in Colorado Springs. Tragically, Jenny could not be cured and passed away in 1903. Taking a brief sabbatical from his practice, Webb studied potential tuberculosis vaccines under the tutelage of Sir Almroth Wright at St. Mary’s Hospital in London. After several months he returned to Colorado Springs now specializing in tuberculosis.
Dr. Webb cemented his roots in the region by marrying Varina Howell Davis Hayes on July 20, 1904. Varina was the daughter of prominent business and civic leader Joel Addison Hayes and his socially and philanthropically gifted wife Margaret Howell Davis Hayes. Perhaps of even greater significance, Varina was the granddaughter of Jefferson Davis, the West Point graduate, former Secretary of War and notably, the President of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. Varina and Gerald had a busy, full life raising five children, and enjoying the company of grandchildren before Varina’s tragic death from blood poisoning in February 1934. Many of the Davis, Hayes and Webb descendants still call Colorado Springs home.
Dr. Webb’s scientific work coupled with a reputation for an outstanding diagnosis and warm bedside manner helped put the city on the map as a center for tuberculosis treatment. Additionally, he was fondly remembered by countless patients and friends for his winning yet gentlemanly ways in pursuit of his many avocations: tennis, polo, chess, science, poetry, and the study of literature and history. Dr. Gerald Webb died of a heart attack at his home on January 27, 1948. For many, the death of this kind-hearted yet sophisticated doctor who was credited by so many for saving their lives signaled the end of an era in Colorado Springs.