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Tuberculosis, the Victorian Scourge


The Victorian era was a time of great advances in medicine. But like in earlier centuries, people did die regularly of disease–cholera, influenza, measles etc. The one I find most fascinating is tuberculosis, or consumption as they called it back then.


Well for one thing, it was the leading cause of death in the U.S. in the 19th century. From the beginning of the century thru 1870, it was the cause of 1 in 5 deaths, or 20%! Compare that with the “scourge” of the late 20th century, AIDS, which is does not even hit the top 5 causes of death in the U.S.

Like those infected with AIDS, though, victims of tuberculosis could live a very long time. It was a wasting disease (thus the 19th century term consumption), its sufferers not dying within days or weeks, but living with attacks and remissions that could last for years or decades. It allowed those infected to get married, have children, and pass the disease on to them. Families, therefore, could suffer from the infection for 2 or even 3 generations, passing it from parent/grandparent to children. In fact, for much of the century, the physicians thought the disease was hereditary, not contagious. They believed that families had a predisposition to the illness.

We now know, of course, that tuberculosis is contagious, transmitted through the air. Why didn’t people understand that back then, when it was considered likely with other illnesses, such as colds and influenza? I suspect that’s because first and foremost, having the TB bacteria doesn’t necessarily mean you will develop the disease. In fact, only 5-10% of the people who have the bacteria ever develop the disease.

Secondly, unlike diseases such as influenza or cholera, it can takes years to develop tuberculosis. You may have been exposed to it by a train passenger in 1850 and not develop symptoms for until 1855. Who could say, then, where you got the disease?

The majority of this information came from Living in the Shadow of Death, Tuberculosis and the social Experience of Illness in American History by Sheila M. Rothman



  1. […] Killed a Lot of People Posted on February 11, 2010 by Denise Eagan Tuberculosis was probably the primary killer disease in the 19th century, killing off approximately 20 million […]

  2. […] ranching history.  But there’s also research on cholera in the Victorian era and research on tuberculosis (which is only a few lines, but many hours of work).  There’s the research on laudanum, and […]

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