By Eilene Lyon — March 24, 2020
It felled Egyptian Pharaohs and Greek warriors. It’s likely been around for 9,000 years or more. An estimate is that one in seven people who ever lived prior to 1800 succumbed to the disease, caused by a bacterium. Is this one of those plagues that have been eradicated by modern medical miracles? Unfortunately, no.
As much as a quarter of the world’s population carries it (mostly latent, not active), and over a million still die every year. What is this contagious disease? Tuberculosis (TB), also known as consumption, phthisis or White Plague.
On this date in 1882, German physician and microbiologist Dr. Robert Koch presented to the world his achievement of isolating the cause of this scourge: Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Prior to this revelation, many believed consumption to be a hereditary disease, since it appeared to run in families.
Koch also worked to isolate the agents causing cholera and anthrax, though he wasn’t the first to recognize the former. He is also credited with formulating four postulates that lead to such discoveries:
- The organism must always be present, in every case of the disease.
- The organism must be isolated from a host containing the disease and grown in pure culture.
- Samples of the organism taken from pure culture must cause the same disease when inoculated into a healthy, susceptible animal in the laboratory.
- The organism must be isolated from the inoculated animal and must be identified as the same original organism first isolated from the originally diseased host.
Though there are no reliable death statistics prior to the 20th century, those who study TB believe that cases peaked from the late 18th to late 19th centuries. As many as half the deaths in people aged 15 to 35 were caused by consumption during that period. It was the leading cause of death worldwide in the 1800s.
It’s unlikely that the people in your family tree were unscathed by TB, though there may not be a record for cause of death in many cases. One known death due to consumption in my family history was Ann Jane (Jenkins) Ransom (1831-1863). It’s probable that some of her siblings who died fairly young also had it.
It’s hard to say just when Ann began experiencing symptoms, as she seems to have had long-term health issues (as did her brother, Bedford, who died at age 47). Her husband, William C. Ransom, who became a doctor years after Ann died, attempted to treat her, without success.
In 1855, Ann, then living in Amador City, California, sent a letter to her parents in Indiana that demonstrates a sadly fatalistic attitude:
“I said I had never been down sick since in this country neither have I but I am nearer that this week than I would like to be I have taken a heavy cold and it seems to affect me all over especially in my heart and shoulders pa [her husband] is going to get me some medicine to cleanse my liver and I have taken a large dose of pills I think when I get that I will be better but mother thee knows I never have calculated on a long life here and what does it matter God has promised to uphold those that look to him with an eye of faith and I dont feel anyways disposed to doubt his word…”
Ann left behind five devastated children, two of whom would soon follow her to the grave. Her three daughters’ lives would never be the same, taking a turn for the worse. How many children suffered the loss of one or both parents from this illness? It staggers one to consider the implications.
Two of Ann’s sisters who may have died from TB were Philadelphia Barr and Mary Clouse. Philadelphia never had children, and it’s clear from her obituary that some type of illness caused her death at 39, though it states it was of short duration. I have no obituary for Mary, mother of five, who was just 30 when she died.
As TB became known as an infectious disease, those who did not suffer from it tended to shun and isolate those who did, not unlike the way people treated lepers. Sanatoriums took in large numbers of patients. Fresh air and a mild climate were touted as beneficial.
On the bright side, TB is now treatable and need not be a death sentence. That so many still suffer and die is tragic. Two primary risk factors are smoking and HIV/AIDS. Taking immunosuppressing drugs tends to activate the bacilli in those with HIV. Treatment is with a combination of antibiotics.
This map shows the annual incidence of active TB cases worldwide in 2017. In the U.S. most cases are found in people born in other countries. We in the developed world have low chances of ever getting TB, but we shouldn’t ignore the fact that it is still a leading deadly infection in other parts of the globe.
Feature image: Watercolor by Richard Tennant Cooper (Wikimedia Commons)
Ann Jane Jenkins on Ancestry.com
Letter (transcript) from Ann Ransom to Abigail and Henry Jenkins, April 17, 1855. Henry Jenkins Correspondence folder of the C. J. Brosnan Collection. University of Idaho Special Collections.
“In Memorium: Philadelphia D. Barr” The Portland (Indiana) Commercial, January 4, 1877.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_tuberculosis_cases (well-known people who suffered or died from TB)