The Social Stigma of Tuberculosis
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.
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 social 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:
- The Claude Moore Health Sciences Library exhibit: “The American Lung Association Crusade”
- The Social Diseases, by Dr. J. Hericourt
- Tuberculosis at Centers for Disease Control
- The American Lung Association
- Robert Koch