The White Plague

The Forgotten Plague: How the Battle Against Tuberculosis Was Won
and Lost

by Frank Ryan
Little, Brown, 460 pp., $24.95

Silent Travelers: Germs, Genes, and the 'Immigrant Menace'

by Alan M. Kraut
Basic Books, 369 pp., $25.00


What did Cardinal Richelieu, Heinrich Heine, Frédéric Chopin, Anton Chekhov, Franz Kafka, George Orwell, and Eleanor Roosevelt have in common? They all died of tuberculosis because the treatments available until about fifty years ago probably did little to prolong sufferers’ lives. Ryan’s story of the discovery of the antibiotics and other agents used against tuberculosis makes as exciting reading as Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters, which must have lured more idealistic young people into medical research than any other book ever written. In earlier times a clean, mild climate was often prescribed, but Chopin wrote ruefully from his villa in Mallorca:

I have been sick as a dog the last two weeks; I caught cold in spite of 18 degrees C. of heat, roses, oranges, palms, figs and three most famous doctors on the island. One sniffed at what I spat up, the second tapped where I spat it from, the third poked about and listened how I spat it. One said I had died, the second that I am dying, the third that I shall die…. All this has affected the “Preludes” and God knows when you will get them.

Perhaps the common fear of consumption was the source of the German Romantic poets’ preoccupation with early death, which Schubert set to music in his Winterreise, with tears streaming down his cheeks. Later in the century, both Verdi’s opera La Traviata and Puccini’s La Bohème end with the heroine’s death from consumption. In her recent book Living in the Shadow of Death, Sheila Rothman has reconstructed the tragic lives of consumptives in nineteenth-century New England from collections of their letters. The disease gradually drained all energy from Deborah Fiske, an enterprising and intelligent young woman, until she could barely manage even to give directions to the servants looking after her household. She died in 1844, aged thirty-eight. Since consumption was not regarded as contagious, Deborah Fiske never seems to have worried that her husband might catch it, which of course he did.

Some patients, Ms. Rothman tells us, sought better health in California, Arizona, or Florida, where they were often exploited by ruthless employers or cheated by the people who ran bogus sanatoriums. Jeffries Wyman, a New Englander whose forebears had settled in Massachusetts before the arrival of the Mayflower, contracted tuberculosis in 1833 as a medical student at Harvard, but he did not succumb to the disease until he had reached his sixties. He combined his duties of professor of anatomy at Harvard with winter expeditions of biological exploration in Florida’s Everglades which restored his health. In 1871 he wrote to his brother: “I have not been sick a day since leaving Hibernia, have slept with and without the tent, have gained strength, have taken long rows in the boat once of nine and twice of ten miles each without fatigue. My cough has not gone but is greatly diminished and my appetite is always good.” However, in 1872 he reported that he had had…

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