Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Most Romantic of Victorian Diseases - Consumption

You can't read a Victorian novel without running into one of the most famous of diseases of the period - consumption. There's a reason that it pops up in everything from Wuthering Heights to Little Women, to David Copperfield. During the 1800s 1 in 4 deaths in the UK, and 1 in 5 in the US and in France were from this wasting disease. So what exactly was consumption?

Consumption is the old fashioned term for tuberculosis, although it could be used for cancer as well, as it meant any disease that caused the sufferer to slowly waste away. While tuberculosis has been around for centuries, the crowded conditions of the cities during and post the industrial revolution led to it becoming more common place. The disease can be spread through contaminated milk and food and by the infected coughing on others. With so many people crowded together and living in unsanitary conditions, it's no surprise that infection increased at a rapid rate. It wasn't just the poor either who suffered from it, but the rich and middle class, as they were often exposed to contaminated food as well, and would catch it if they were helping to care for other diseased family members.

Treatment for consumption varied, though the poor were encouraged to go to consumption houses, which were also work houses in an effort to quarantine them. Not surprisingly they avoided them if they could, and most that went never came out of them alive.
The rich and middle class were sent to sanitariums where they actually received medical care. With little knowledge of the disease though, the death rate was still 50% for those who contracted TB. (Interestingly only 5 - 10 percent of those exposed will actually develop the disease.)
A common method of treatment was to expose the patient to what was considered "pure air". Dr.John Crogan opened up a sanatorium in a cave (1838-1845) believing the air to be better there. Unfortunately his patients died and the cave sanatorium was closed.
Later it was thought that fresh mountain air was better, as there would be less pressure above sea level, making it easier for a patient to breath.

In 1882 Robert Koch was the first to identify the tuberculosis bacterium, and received a Nobel prize for it in 1905. As it was then recognized that some of the infections came from contaminated milk, this also helped lead to pasteurization. In 1906 Albert Calmette, and Camille Guerin developed the BCG vaccine to prevent TB, although it was not used on humans until 1921. With the use of vaccines, antibiotics and pasteurization, infection rates in the 20th century rapidly declined.

Consumption was a popular subject in Victorian literature and art due to it's prevalence, and was strangely considered a romantic disease. People afflicted with it were said to be more sensitive and it was often considered an artist's disease. The poet William Blake even expressed a wish to die of it. It was also thought to be a "good death" due to it's slow nature as one would have time to prepare. Consumptive women were even thought attractive and healthy women would sometimes make themselves paler with powders to achieve a consumptive look.
Though it was mostly eradicated in the Western world it has made a comeback, with some variations being resistant to antibiotics. My mother got it as a child in the early 1950s and was sent to a sanitarium in Switzerland for the fresh mountain air. It sounds like something from a novel, though my mother assures me it was not as exciting as that. Luckily of course she survived thanks to modern medicine.

Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone


  1. TB is a really interesting disease from a medical point of view - its decline actually had more to do with improvements in living conditions than pasteurisation, treatment or vaccination (as seen in the more gradual decline in incidence and prevalence rates). More power to public health!

    Also, the main reason TB is still there is because of immigration and poor living conditions in other countries (not resistance) - Indian immigrants in the UK are offered a TB vaccine, I think. We're still shit scared of it in healthcare, as it's incredibly contagious and can very easily enter a latent form that won't reactivate for potentially years (plus it can infect organs other than the lungs and cause an atypical presentation). /medic splurge

    1. Thanks for the info! Very informative. :)

  2. Very interesting post!
    We have an old sanatorium here in my town, were you have a wonderful view over the town from the mountain it is built on. It has been a nursery home, refugee camp and an asylum. Parts of the sanatorium are abandoned and some parts are a boarding school today.