Tuberculosis: The Great White Plague (Part 2)


(C. 1860 pre-mortem photo of young girl with suspected case of TB. Photo Credit: Beyond the Dark Veil: Post Mortem & Morning Photography.)

Tuberculosis makes me think of daguerreotype funeral photos from the mid-1800’s. My personal lack of exposure to the disease has allowed me to become distanced; storing it’s horrors in the archives of my mind; painted as an object of past suffering. Unfortunately, Tuberculosis is alive and well, regardless of what we might think. The white plague, as described by Hippocrates, was one of the most widespread diseases of his time (Parker 155). Today, it affects between 8-10 million people a year worldwide, thus making it a widespread medical phenomena (Parker 156). In fact, it might be surprising to know that the World Health Organization has set a goal to eradicate the epidemic by 2030 (Parker 156). On average, a person with TB will end up infecting about 20 other individuals before being properly treated or dying (Markel 18). There have actually been instances where medical professionals have had to track airplane passengers down to see how many travelers had contracted the disease after an infected patron had spiced up the recycled air with their relentless coughing. In 2011 alone, 8.7 million people had TB, and that same year, 1.4-3 million deaths worldwide were attributed to the disease (Moore 120). To put that into perspective, that is about 9,000 deaths a day on average!


(Consumptives begging the king for his curative touch. Photo Credit: Dreadful Diseases and Terrible Treatments)

I know what you must be thinking. “How can it still be a problem for us if we have developed powerful antibiotics?” Great question. In fact, in 1947 scientists noticed the curative effects of the antibiotic Streptomycin (Parker 156). Tuberculosis got smarter as time went on though and strains of antibiotic-resistant TB were wreaking havoc once again (Parker 103). Antibiotics are still used today to treat the bacterial disease, but oftentimes, the treatments are on-going and typically last for months. There is a vaccine used typically outside of the US to prevent Tuberculosis in children, called Bacille Calmette-Gurin.  Before the age of antibiotics, scientists and medical professionals alike were still trying to cure patients with TB. Lets take some time to look at some of the oddball remedies of the past. Some Romans believed it was beneficial to bathe in human urine and drink animal blood (Moore 118). Galen, the famous surgeon to the gladiators, recommended fresh air and sea voyages to improve one’s condition (Moore 119). During the Middle Ages, some believed that the disease was due to the wrath of the king. In England and France, people would beg for mercy at the feet of their ruler, hoping that his merciful touch would relieve them of the illness (Mandal). In 1821, Dr. James Carson developed a surgical procedure with which the pleural effusion (fluid between the lung and chest) was drained, thus hopefully prolonging the patient’s life (Mandal). Touching back on Galen’s recommendations of fresh air, the 1900’s saw a rise in sanatoriums (facilities which provided patients with long-term treatment). The most popular locations for these TB sanatoriums were in the mountains because doctors noticed that patients recovered faster in areas with less oxygen (Markel 26). This is due to the fact that this bacteria needs a lot of oxygen in order to thrive, therefore mountain resorts with thinned air were extraordinarily beneficial. Consumptives (those with TB) were fleeing to these sanatoriums until the rise of anti-tubercular drugs. Although it is easy to associate this bacterial disease with the past, it is still something that stays in the peripherals of our future. Knowing the disease’s history and patterns helps us develop more successful ways of treating consumptives in the modern world. If you are at all interested in learning more about Tuberculosis and other disease, I highly recommend the book, When Germs Travel, by the Popular medical historian, Howard Markel.


(Photo Credit: Medicine: The Definitive Illustrated History.)

Here is a brief list of some of the most famous people to die from TB:

<John Keats, Percy Shelley, Emily Bronte, Edgar Allen Poe, Eleanor Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson, Chopin, and Henry David Thoreau.>

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

I wish all of my readers a happy and healthy 2019.

Until Next Time:



  • Beyond the Dark Veil: Post Mortem & Morning Photography. The Thanatos Archive. California: Grand Central Press, 2013.
  • Mandal, Ananya. “History of TB.” News Medical. Accessed 18 December, 2018.
  • 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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