Acclaimed Writer and Researcher to Share Previously Untold Story of Courage in Medicine at 2024 International Conference

Acclaimed author Maria Smilios will join ATS 2024 in San Diego to share an extraordinary story of courage in the medical profession that, until now, had been overlooked by history. Ms. Smilios’ book, The Black Angels: The Untold Story of the Nurses Who Helped Cure Tuberculosis, published in September 2023 by Penguin Random House, tells the true story of a group of Black nurses who helped cure one of the world’s deadliest epidemics: tuberculosis.

Maria Smilios
Maria Smilios

Ms. Smilios will recount this essential, previously untold story during a “Fireside Chat” session at ATS 2024. For those unable to attend this session, Ms. Smilios will also discuss her revelatory research on the Black Angels at the ATS Center. Copies of her book will also be available on-site, where she will also hold a book signing.

In the pre-antibiotic days of 1929, tuberculosis killed approximately one in seven people. In the spring of that year, the white nurses at Sea View Hospital, New York’s largest municipal tuberculosis sanatorium, began quitting en masse. To avoid a catastrophic public health crisis, city officials lured Black nurses from the American South with promises of stable salaries and escape from the repressive structures of Jim Crow. However, once these nurses arrived at Sea View, there was little reprieve from the racial discrimination they sought to escape, and instead found themselves isolated in a woefully understaffed and underfunded facility dubbed “the pest house.”

Spanning the Great Depression and moving through World War II and beyond, Ms. Smilios’ book tracks the lives and accomplishments of the Black Angels who risked their lives and overcame abysmal working conditions for 20 years to care for the city’s poorest patients, people regarded as “immoral, uncouth, uncultured, indigent consumptives.” To the city, the sick, like the Black nurses, were considered expendable.

“The story is really about who lives or dies based on environmental factors and what zip code you happen to live in,” Ms. Smilios said. “That’s something we need to rethink if we are going to fix a broken health care system and work towards health equity.”

Despite the nurses playing a significant role in desegregating the New York City hospital system and their contributions to finding the cure for tuberculosis at Sea View, these exceptional women were completely erased from history.

“While researching and writing this story, I was struck by how the past continues to inform the present. We have to keep looking towards these stories from our history to ensure we’re not making the same mistakes,” Ms. Smilios explained. “We all saw how frontline workers were treated during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that can’t keep happening.” 

The Black Angels captures an unforgettable story from Ms. Smilios’ eight years of research and reporting to amplify the voices of these remarkable women and place them at the center of this riveting story that celebrates their legacy, courage, and spirit of survival.

“Despite all the tragedies that occur in this story, it is ultimately one of triumph,” Ms. Smilios said. “It’s a story that gives us hope and reminds us there will always be people willing to put themselves at risk to take care of other human beings, and that is a really beautiful thing.”

Ms. Smilios is a native of New York City and holds a Masters of Arts from Boston University in Religion & Literature, where she was a Henry Luce and Presidential Scholar. She formerly worked as a development editor in the biomedical sciences at Springer, editing books on lung diseases, pediatric and breast cancer, neurology, and ocular diseases.

Since writing The Black Angels, she has started working with organizations such as EndTB and Partners in Health to advocate for affordable and accessible drugs for tuberculosis, particularly in countries still heavily affected by the disease.

She has previously written for The Guardian, American Nurse, Narratively, The Rumpus, Dame Magazine, Lit Hub, Writer’s Digest, and The Forward, among others. The Black Angels is her first book.