It has been known as the White Plague, Robber of Youth and the Graveyard Cough.
It has been a scourge for centuries, possibly killing more people than any other infectious disease.But in the midst of the despair and horror, tuberculosis has inspired some of the greatest works of art and literature. In the French opera “La Bohème,” Mimì, the heroine, has tuberculosis, and Fantine in Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables becomes ill and dies from consumption.
Tuberculosis, its trail of destruction and eventual hope will be the focus of the seventh annual S. Amjad Hussain Visiting Lecture in the History of Medicine and Surgery at The University of Toledo. Dr. Robert Bartlett, professor emeritus of surgery at the University of Michigan, will present the free, public lecture, “Romance, Science and the White Plague,” Wednesday, Oct. 21, at 5 p.m.
“When people were dying of tuberculosis, it inspired sufferers and those witnessing the suffering to write books, poems and music about the experience,” Bartlett said. “It was truly phenomenal how they were able to take the horrific experience, which in many cases led to death, and leave us with some memorable works of art. It’s quite unusual for one specific disease to have such a footprint on art and literature.”
Tuberculosis was an epidemic in Europe and caused millions of deaths in the 18th and 19th centuries. While this serious disease declined after the late 19th century, it still remains a public health issue today.
Bartlett’s lecture will look at the science behind finding the cause of tuberculosis and how not knowing the source of the disease led to strange remedies.
“It affected everybody, and no one knew what caused it,” he said. “People tried all sorts of things like eating a lot of food or eating no food, drinking milk or avoiding milk, or exercising a lot or not exercising at all.”
Eventually, German bacteriologist Robert Koch discovered that the bacteria that cause tuberculosis are spread from one person to another through tiny droplets released into the air via coughs and sneezes.
This led to the formation of sanatoriums where sufferers could stay as they recovered. These days, a series of antibiotics for at least six to nine months are used to treat patients with only a limited time in quarantine.
“Tuberculosis is still common these days, but it is treatable in most cases,” Bartlett said. “We see it occurring in people who have a low-immune response like patients with AIDS or patients who are undergoing chemotherapy.”
Bartlett was selected for this year’s lecture by a committee that included Hussain; Dr. Peter White, professor emeritus of medicine; Dr. Gerald B. Zelenock, former professor and chair of surgery; and Dr. Steven H. Selman, former professor and chair of urology. Hussain, UT professor emeritus of thoracic and cardiovascular surgery and member of the University Board of Trustees, teaches and oversees the History of Medicine elective.
“History is an integral part of the human experience,” Hussain said. “Our job as teachers and scholars is to connect the present with the past by blowing away the cumulative dust of time. Unless we know the past, we can’t make sense of the present, nor can we chart a cohesive course for the future.”