Since antiquity, doctors puzzled over a condition known as “consumption” while their patients lost strength and struggled for breath. By the 1800s, most believed it was hereditary and that it primarily afflicted the upper class. After the consumptive deaths of many famed artists and writers, consumption even seemed to be a sign of intelligence and creativity. Stylish men and women adopted a pale, thin appearance to mimic the “White Plague,” so-called due to its victims’ pallor.
A microbiologist in Berlin’s Imperial Department of Health, Jewish physician Robert Koch, upended this perception in 1882 when he proved that consumption —now known as tuberculosis — is a contagious bacterial infection and not a hereditary trait.
In fact, the working class had been dying at an alarming rate for generations; the upper classes had simply not noticed their plight. The once-fashionable disease soon became known as the “Tailors’ Disease” due to its prevalence among garment workers.
From public hygiene campaigns and open-air schools to quarantines and contact tracing, you might notice echoes of our current pandemic in America’s fight against tuberculosis. Explore this history through the artifacts and stories below. Click on each image as you scroll to the right. Unless otherwise indicated, all images are from the collection of the National Museum of American Jewish History.
An Ongoing Threat
America’s tuberculosis rates fell when we controlled contagion, addressed the conditions in which the disease spread, and isolated patients from healthy neighbors and family members. With new antibiotic medications, hope swelled: perhaps science could eradicate tuberculosis and other diseases.
During the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, doctors were dismayed to find that HIV+ patients are very vulnerable to developing active tuberculosis. Meanwhile, a rise in drug-resistant tuberculosis bacteria coincided with the realization that a once-touted vaccine is not consistently effective.
Today, the world’s poorest people remain especially vulnerable to tuberculosis. There are now treatment options for patients in every stage of tuberculosis, but vulnerable communities often lack access to healthcare – a situation worsened by COVID-19 lockdowns. Our best hope for controlling the disease might be, as it was a century ago, to control contagion and to improve the unjust circumstances in which the disease flourishes.
Want to learn more? There is much more to learn about this fascinating history. Here are just a few suggestions for books and online exploration to take a deeper dive.