This page is really just a place to put some links about the disease that was the biggest killer in Europe for centuries. In 1918 - at about the time that my grandparents died of the disease, one in six deaths in France was due to TB. And in spite of vaccination and the use of drugs, the disease is beginning to resurface, as the bacillus becomes resistant to the drugs which have been so successful in recent times.
TB or consumption as it was sometimes known, has all sorts of romantic connotations - the phrase “alone and palely loitering”, springs to mind, but there was really nothing romantic about it, as it is hardly a nice way to die, and also is largely contracted from poor diet, and close living conditions in which infected people, cough, spit and otherwise transmit the disease.
“Tuberculosis is a social disease that is extremely sensitive to changes in the standard of living. The disease is an infection that is primarily spread directly from human being to human being. The degree of crowding and the standard of housing are therefore important factors when it comes to the spreading of the disease. Usually, steady contact is required in order that the disease should be transmitted. Tuberculosis is also sensitive to nutrition. Persons with good diets are far more resistant to the disease than those suffering from malnutrition or those with a poor diet. Protein deficiency is particularly dangerous, especially a lack of animal proteins. A reduction of nutritional intake together with a greater degree of crowding should thus lead to an increased TB frequency in societies where the disease is endemic” Bi Puranen
In 1882 the bacillus was finally identified although its relationship to bovine tb was not recognised until much later, which led to people becoming infected by unpasteurised milk from infected cows. The recognition of the contribution of crowded living conditions, caused the government to set up sanataria around the country to which people were encouraged to move. There, it was believed, fresh air, exercise and good food would lead to a full recovery, and although it did sometimes help it was hardly a cure.
“The first two decades of the twentieth century thus witnessed the emergence of an extensive State-funded organisational network for the treatment of tuberculosis, as well as a heightened effort in preventive work by the NAPT and through the dispensaries. Concern for national efficiency was an important factor in the early twentieth century anti-tuberculosis movement, arguably more important than the discovery of the tubercle bacillus itself. It did not take the discovery of the causal agent to point to a connection between tuberculosis and the conditions (or habits) of the poor which was the basis of preventive work. Open-air treatment preceded the discovery and was not greatly influenced by it. The importance of the bacteriological revolution, of which the discovery of the tubercle bacillus was a part, lay in its contribution to medical confidence in the early twentieth century. There was, in particular, a growing confidence in the value of institutional treatment and in medical science in dealing with what was now perceived as a major national problem. The anti-tuberculosis campaign was launched in a positive spirit.” (Below the Magic Mountain: a social history of tuberculosis in twentieth century Britain)
Other names by which TB was known, were the aforementioned consumption, phthisis pulmonalis, wasting disease and the King’s Evil.