University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Every Breath You Take: Tuberculosis Treatments

Tuberculosis & the Grim Reaper [no date]

Tuberculosis & the Grim Reaper [no date]
American Lung Association of Virginia (ALAV) Collection. Historical Collections & Services, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, University of Virginia.

 

Known as consumption, TB, phthisis, and White Plague, tuberculosis dates back to prehistory and remains endemic in much of the world. Modern medical understanding of TB has given us cures, and we often consider it a thing of the past, but for most of our history it has been a violent and mystifying killer.

Tuberculosis was seen as a shameful, dirty disease due to its prevalence in the lower classes. In his book, The Social Diseases: Tuberculosis, Syphilis, Alcoholism, Sterility (London; George Routledge & Sons, LTD; 1920), Dr. J. Hericourt, like many of his contemporaries, blamed the patient for the disease:

As these four diseases are responsible for the greater part of the moral suffering to which man is subject, it will be seen that it is only too true that societies, like men, are the architects of their own misfortunes.

Kentucky TB Association Flyer: The War Against Tuberculosis is Not Over, 1940s.

Kentucky TB Association Flyer: The War Against Tuberculosis is Not Over, 1940s
American Lung Association of Virginia (ALAV) Collection. Historical Collections & Services, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, University of Virginia.

Despite its status as a dirty, immoral sickness, every family was touched by tuberculosis — from the poorest to the wealthiest. In the late 1800s tuberculosis was still at the epidemic level that had characterized the disease for hundreds of years, and modern medicine had no hope to offer sufferers. A diagnosis of tuberculosis was, in effect, a sentence to a painful death, comparable to that of AIDS in our more recent history.

Although German physician Robert Koch discovered the cause of tuberculosis in 1882, the stigma of immorality and uncleanliness lingered the sixty long years until a cure was found. For that duration, people searched relentlessly for new ways to treat and prevent tuberculosis.

View the Exhibit Brochure:

Further Information:

Next Page: Desperate Search