Sunday, December 28, 2014

52 Ancestors #52: Tuberculosis: Greatest Killer in History

Dr. Frank Ryan in his book, Tuberculosis: The Greatest Story Never Told, called tuberculosis "the greatest infectious killer in history."

Tuberculosis, or TB (short for tubercle bacillus), has also been called phthisis, phthisis pulmonalis, or consumption. It is in many cases a fatal, infectious disease, which attacks the lungs as well as other parts of the body. It is spread through the air when people who have an active tuberculosis cough, sneeze or transmit respiratory fluids through the air. In the middle of the 19th century tuberculosis accounted for approximately one in eight of all deaths in Scotland.

While the coal mines and textile factories provided work for our Muir ancestors, the industrial developments in many areas of Scotland were so rapid that provisions for public health did not keep pace. Ten to fourteen people lived in single-room homes with rudimentary facilities for hygiene made for unhealthy living conditions. Until the late 1800s most health care was provided by local authorities and was haphazard at best. Homes and workplaces were incubators for disease, especially tuberculosis.

It was not until 1882 that doctors and scientists understood tuberculosis was caused by an infectious agent. The invention of the X-Ray machine in 1895 enabled doctors to diagnose and track the progress of the disease. The United Kingdom considered tuberculosis its most pressing health problem at the turn of the 20th century. An international health conference was convened Berlin in 1902. Among the proposals arising from the conference was using the Cross of Lorraine as the international symbol of the fight against the disease.

Famous poster designed by Ernest Hamlin Baker; image courtesy of
U.S. National Library of Medicine

National campaigns swept across Europe and North American to try to curb the rise of tuberculosis. Many of these campaigns incorporated the Cross of Lorraine. In Great Britain there were campaigns to stop spitting in public places and the infected poor were pressured to enter sanatoria that often resembled prisons. Surgical interventions were also conducted with doctors collapsing an infected person's lungs in order to allow it to rest.

It was not until 1944 when streptomycin was isolated and an antibiotic developed that tuberculosis was brought under some sort of control. In 1948, George Orwell wrote about the drug while in Hairmyres Hospital, Scotland, being treated for tuberculosis:

"This disease isn't dangerous at my age, and they say the cure is going on quite well, though slowly...We are now sending for some new American drug called streptomycin which they say will speed up the cure."

But streptomycin wasn't the total cure. Tuberculosis frequently mutated and became resistant to it so the search continued for new drugs. Eventually, combination therapy began to work and while tuberculosis was never totally eradicated in the western world, it was brought under some sort of control. However, it continues to rage in Africa and other parts of the world.

Researching my Scottish ancestors made me aware of how frequently an early death was caused by this cruel disease.

This is my entry for Amy Johnson Crow's 52 ancestors in 52 weeks challenge.

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