Tuberculosis: The Great White Plague (Part 1)

Consumption, the white plague, “TB,” and lung fever are all nicknames for Tuberculosis;  an often deadly infectious bacterial disease (Parker 155). It was not until 1882 that Robert Koch was able to identify the microbe that caused TB; Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Parker 155). Tuberculosis most often affects the lungs of a patient because the organism requires a lot of oxygen to thrive (Markel 26). The person who is afflicted will experience pain in their chests, a chronic cough, sometimes containing blood, labored breathing, and severe aches and pains throughout their body. The disease is nicknamed consumption because the bacteria literally begins consuming the tissues of the lungs (Moore 108).  When it is found in the lungs it is classified as Pulmonary TB, but it can also be found within the spine (Spinal TB) (Moore 115). With Spinal TB, instead of the lungs being attacked, the connective joints between the vertebrae are weakened and abscesses that grow along the spinal column, continually eat away at the surrounding tissues (Moore 115). This particular strain is most common in children and has been referred to as Pott’s disease. Unfortunately, some people with Tuberculosis do not seek treatment until their bodies have undergone too much damage because TB can be latent for years at a time before activating (Markel 16).


(An example of spinal abscesses in someone with Spinal TB. Photo Credit: Dreadful Diseased & Terrible Treatments: The Story of Medicine Through the Ages)

The earliest record of Tuberculosis in a complete corpse was uncovered in Egypt (Moore 109). Paleopathological evidence has led many to believe that the infectious disease has actually been around since the Neolithic era (C. 5800 B.C.E) ( Moore 109). TB loves urban areas because it can spread like wildfire in such an environment. Cities are centers for disease due to their unsanitary conditions. Consumption was characterized as being the disease of the poor. It developed more often in areas with crowded tenements and tired laborers. Some TB reporting regulations arose proving this thought. Private doctors who saw wealthy patients at their homes were not required to report their cases to the health authorities, but free clinics that were institutions only for the poor were required to report all instances of disease (Markel 34).  In the 1800’s, surrounding the Industrial Revolution, the disease peaked, killing about 25% of the population (Moore 111, 118). Writers from the 18th to 20th centuries oftentimes romanticized Tuberculosis, weaving tragic but beautiful tales around its presence (Parker 156). Paintings and death photography also tried to capture the depleting vitality that was seen in those who were dying.


(Photo Credit: Dreadful Diseased & Terrible Treatments: The Story of Medicine Through the Ages)


(If that didn’t make you thankful for modern medicine, then I don’t know what will!)

Until Next Time:



  • Markel, Howard. When Germs Travel. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.
  • Moore, Jonathan. Dreadful Diseases and Terrible Treatments: The Story of Medicine Through the Ages. Alabama: Sweet Water Press, 2017.
  • Parker, Steve. Medicine: The Definitive Illustrated History. New York: DK Publishing, 2016.

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