Tuberculosis in American Culture since 1870

Katherine Ott

Roy Porter | Published in 30 Apr 1998

With the emergence of drug-resistant strains of the microbe, tuberculosis is now resurgent in the West, and so it is well to be reminded of responses to the 'white plague' in the days when it was the number-one adult killer, easily outstripping cancer and heart attacks. Katherine Ott's succinct and spirited survey of American developments offers one key corrective to received views. TB has commonly been presented as a romantic disease, thanks to cases from Keats to Kafka in which the condition was associated with creativity - or with the exquisite beauty of the Pre-Raphaelite damsel. Ott insists that that image was wholly exceptional. In truth, TB was generally perceived as dirty and disgusting, and the consumptive was feared and often shunned.

Traditional beliefs contributed much to the stigma. It was widely seen as a constitutional or inherited complaint, and hence (especially in the age of eugenics) read as evidence of poor stock. It was additionally regarded as the wages of bad morals, a disorder brought on by drinking, partying and other forms of excess, being thus symptomatic of some inner weakness.

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