Arts Literature

Book Feature: The Black Angels

The Untold Story of the Nurses Who Helped Cure Tuberculosis

Maria Smilios, Author

Maria Smilios was working as a science editor on a book about rare lung diseases when she happened upon the fact that the cure for tuberculosis was found at Sea View, a sanitorium on Staten Island. Intrigued, she began digging into the story, finding an article by a woman named Virginia Allen. Allen, then 86, had been part of a group of African American nurses who were called the Black Angels. When Smilios met her, Allen asked her to tell the story of these unsung heroes who, beginning in 1929, came to work at Sea View.

What followed was eight years of research and writing. “The book has two narrative threads—the nurses’ story and the race for the cure,” Smilios says. “The story of the cure is fairly well-documented, but the stories of the nurses and the patients they tended is based almost entirely on oral history.” Besides Allen, only one other nurse—Curlene Bennett, 91—was still alive to tell her story. Smilios conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with family members, friends, doctors, historians and others to complete the history.

“Aside from it being an incredible story, I was struck by this being another story of women in science—in this case Black women in science—whose contributions had been completed erased,” says Smilios. “Ultimately, this is a story, a very human story, one of triumph and one that shows us how in times of great need there are those who will selflessly risk their lives to keep us safe.”

The Black Angels: The Untold Story of the Nurses Who Helped Cure Tuberculosis, September, 2023, narrative nonfiction, hardcover, $30, by Maria Smilios, and published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, NY. Learn more at

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