New York City, 1929. A sanatorium, a deadly disease, and a dire nursing shortage.
In the pre-antibiotic days when tuberculosis stirred people’s darkest fears, killing one in seven, white nurses at Sea View, New York’s largest municipal hospital, began quitting en masse. Desperate to avert a public health crisis, city officials summoned Black southern nurses, luring them with promises of good pay, a career, and an escape from the strictures of Jim Crow. But after arriving, they found themselves on an isolated hilltop in the remote borough of Staten Island, yet again confronting racism and consigned to a woefully understaffed sanatorium, dubbed “the pest house,” where it was said that “no one left alive.”
Spanning the Great Depression and moving through World War II and beyond, this remarkable true story follows the intrepid young women known by their patients as the “Black Angels.” For twenty years, they risked their lives working under appalling conditions while caring for New York’s poorest residents, who languished in wards, waiting to die, or became guinea pigs for experimental surgeries and often deadly drugs. But despite their major role in desegregating the New York City hospital system—and their vital work in helping to find the cure for tuberculosis at Sea View—these nurses were completely erased from history. The Black Angels recovers the voices of these extraordinary women and puts them at the center of this riveting story, celebrating their legacy and spirit of survival.
About the Author
Maria Smilios learned about the Black Angels while working as a science book editor at Springer Publishing. As a native New Yorker and lover of history, medicine, and women’s narratives, she became determined to tell their story. In addition to interviewing historians, archivists, and medical professionals, she spent years immersed in the lives and stories of those close to these extraordinary women. Maria holds a master of arts in religion and literature from Boston University, where she was a Luce scholar and taught in the religion and writing program. In her free time, she enjoys reading, hiking, and hanging out with her tween daughter and their rescue dog, Buddy. The Black Angels is her first book.
One of St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Most Anticipated Books of Fall One of American Scientist’s Fall STEM Reads One of HistoryToday’s Best Books of the Year One of The National Herald’s Favorite Books to Give as Gifts This Year A Booklist Editor’s Choice
“Vivid…[An] indelible portrait of an era when this untreatable bane killed one American every 11 minutes…[The nurses’] tenacity in the face of harsh working conditions and pervasive racism is humbling and inspiring…Excellent…[A] book that deserves reading and remembering in the pandemic age.” —The New York Times Book Review
“I've never read anything like The Black Angels, a tale of medical horror and heroism that recalls The Hot Zone as much as it does Hidden Figures. Smilios plunges the reader into the festering tuberculosis wards of 1930s New York, where death was airborne, inevitable—until a few brave nurses changed the lives of millions. This is extraordinary nonfiction.” —Jason Fagone, author of The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America's Enemies
"An incredible story...the writing is phenomenal." —John Green, author of The Anthropocene Reviewed
“A gripping book.” —The New York Times
“A must-read for all nurses.” —New York Nurse
“Immensely rewarding…[A] confluence of histories, encompassing public health, urban development, race, class, and social upheaval…[Smilios] blends all of the threads she followed into a big blistering narrative that takes readers into the lives of an exceptional group of individuals whose personal stories are as compelling as the disease they confronted was deadly. Informative, enthralling, and sometimes appalling, this is American history at its best.” —Booklist, starred review
“[An] evocative debut…Smilios’s narrative is sympathetically told in rich […] prose…Historical fiction aficionados will want to take a look.” —Publishers Weekly
“[A] remarkable debut…Meticulous research paired with exceptional narration makes this timely account of a public health emergency, labor shortage, and enduring discrimination an essential addition to all nonfiction collections.” —Library Journal
“Edna, Missouria, and Virginia answered a call for nurses and changed the world. These courageous women who desegregated hospitals and tamed an airborne killer at last receive necessary, poignant recognition in Maria Smilios’ exquisitely rendered history.” —Sarah Rose, author of D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II “A breathless but illuminating conquest-of-disease narrative…Vivid accounts of medical and racial progress with a mostly happy ending.” —Kirkus Reviews
"I am blown away by this book...this is a story I did not know...these women risked their own lives. It is a fabulous story—everything that I love, it's untold history, it's looking at the world from a different perspective. This is a story that needs telling and it IS being told. It's about women whose names have been forgotten—until now. I am so passionate about it." —Sandi Toksvig, BBC Two, Between the Covers
“An excellent read for Black History Month and anytime, because it tracks the tenacity and destructiveness of tuberculosis in the body and of racism in the body politic. The Black nurses at Sea View prevailed against a terrible disease—and against the “Reserved for Whites” signs in the staff dining room, a racist nursing superintendent, and the overt hostility of their White Staten Island neighbors. The systemic racism inflicted on these nurses was pervasive and personal. . . . [The Black Angels] shows heroism and goodness prevailing anyway, a testament to the integrity and commitment of Sea View’s Black nurses.” —Theresa Brown, American Journal of Nursing
“Extraordinary…Written with an astute grasp of the medical facts surrounding TB, [the] book eloquently highlights the humanity of the nurses who were recruited from the segregated South to provide care for people with TB in the hospital when nobody else would…Smilios is a rare combination of rigorous scientist and an exquisite writer…[A] must-read for anyone in the TB field but also for those who wish to gain a better understanding of the factors that drive current health disparities.” —The Lancet
“The Black Angels are our guides in the story of the battle to defeat tuberculosis, a cadre of women who left the Jim Crow South and fought for their own equality in New York while nursing the great city’s incurable castoffs. Decades of work with dying patients made the Black Angels into invaluable experts when test after desperate test came in the search for a cure. In richly written, capacious prose, Maria Smilios weaves medical history with personal stories of kindness and redemption in a science thriller told on a human scale.” —Judy Melinek, M.D., and T. J. Mitchell, authors of Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner
“With a detective’s tenacity, Maria Smilios pays tribute to the Black Angels, that compassionate cadre of nurses whose meticulous record keeping helped buttress the clinical trials that led to a pivotal breakthrough in the treatment of tuberculosis. She weaves their personal journeys with their professional devotion to the indigent, incurable patients whose care became their cause even as they were unwelcome in most American hospitals because of their race.” —A'Lelia Bundles, author of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker