Born: Dec. 26, 1922
Brownsburg Meadows Assisted Living
Tuberculosis was the leading cause of death in Indiana and throughout the United States in the early 1950s when between 80 and 90 percent of the population was infected with the disease. Nationwide in 1953, about 20,000 people died of TB.
Indiana, with a disproportionately high number of TB cases, was considered part of the TB Black Belt. But by 1972, the number of cases had dropped substantially, with Indiana ranking 26th among states in terms of TB deaths.
A lot of credit for that drop goes to Dale C. Fenner, who as a microbiologist for the state was responsible for testing thousands of specimens that required accurate analysis which led to aggressive treatment.
In the early days of work to stem the TB epidemic, scientists were not 100 percent certain how the lung disease was transmitted. Eventually, they learned it was spread by infected people coughing and sneezing droplets that were inhaled by others, much like a cold is transmitted.
Because it was so vitriolic, sanitariums opened statewide. People spent months in treatment. Among the facilities was Sunnyside Sanatorium, which was an outgrowth of the City Hospital, now known as Eskenazi Hospital. Sunnyside continued to operate until 1969.
Mr. Fenner didn’t just test specimens and send them back to the doctors. He followed up to make sure there was some follow-up with patients who had tested positive. He wanted to make sure they were treated, he said.
“Sometimes that got me into trouble,” he said. “I was never one who could keep my mouth shut.”
All over the state, associations were formed to educate people about the disease. But as TB raged on, it became less responsive to antibiotics.
Mr. Fenner became TB positive himself. After taking antibiotics, it cleared up, but he had to be tested repeatedly, he said. The disease “starts very slowly and comes on very quietly,” he said.
Mr. Fenner grew up on a Crow Indian reservation in Montana with two brothers and a sister. His father worked in Indian Affairs for the government. He graduated from Rocky Mountain College and after listening to President Roosevelt’s radio broadcast about the attack at Pearl Harbor, he went to the nearest recruiting station to join the military. But he had a hernia which caused him to be disqualified.
Instead of accepting his 4F designation that found him unfit for military, he had surgery and returned to the recruiting office. He was admitted to the U.S. Navy. After service, he returned to college at the University of Montana and then to Purdue University, where he received a master’s in bacteriology. He married Marjorie E. Gurnsey and they had five children.
After graduating from Purdue, he went to work for the Indiana State Board of Health in 1950 and worked there more than 40 years.
Today, one third of the world’s population is infected with TB. Most of the cases in the U.S. are among people with HIV and those born in countries where TB is common. But in Indiana, thanks to the work of Mr. Fenner and others, the disease is under control.