Tuberculosis: Finding the Cause and Preventing the Spread
Tuberculosis was long considered to be hereditary because no causative agent had been identified. Therefore, it carried a social stigma although the disease was so common that almost every family had at least one “consumptive” member.
Identifying the cause. This began to change in 1868 when the French physician Jean-Antoine Villemin proved that TB was contagious. He showed that it was spread through sputum and blood and could spread from humans to animals. Many did not believe his research, however, until the German microbiologist Robert Koch isolated the causative agent in 1882: a rod-shaped bacterium now called Mycobacterium tuberculosis, or simply, the tubercle bacillus.
Although it would be decades before a cure was found, these discoveries changed the way health professionals and the public viewed the disease. Now it was clear that even a single cough or sneeze might contain hundreds of bacilli, which would manifest independently of morality or cleanliness.
Preventing Tuberculosis. Long before Koch isolated the tubercle bacillus, physicians had tried to identify preventive methods to limit the disease. Faced with new information about tuberculosis as an infectious disease, people now saw the possibility of contagion everywhere they looked.
One approach was positive: to adopt healthful habits and avoid spreading the disease. The other approach had some unfortunate social consequences: to avoid people infected with tuberculosis and further alienate them from society.
Clean air, healthy food, sleep. Physicians and public health officials promoted healthful habits such as clean air, healthy food, and sleep that could help prevent tuberculosis. These healthful habits were also promoted by the National Tuberculosis Association, the Virginia Anti-Tuberculosis Association, and many other public health organizations across the country.
Fresh Air Camps for Poor Children. In the late 1800s, charitable organizations began to create programs to take poor children from the cities to the countryside for a few days or weeks. It was hoped that fresh air, good food, and being away from city life would bolster the children’s health and prevent disease. Because much of the treatment of tuberculosis focused on clean air, it was also assumed that good air could help prevent tuberculosis in children. The image to the left shows children in the Kiddies Camp in San Luis Obispo County, California, being weighed before leaving camp. The camp was started by the Juniors and Red Cross Chapter in cooperation with the county and the Tuberculosis Association.
Anti-spitting campaigns. Because the tubercle bacillus could survive a whole day in sputum, it was immediately clear that the widespread habit of spitting was dangerous to public health. Across the country, cities and local governments began campaigns to wipe out the habit.