Magazine article Nutrition Health Review

The Disease That Built Mini-Empires - and Changed the Course of 19th-Century Society

Magazine article Nutrition Health Review

The Disease That Built Mini-Empires - and Changed the Course of 19th-Century Society

Article excerpt

Science had ot yet become a major social force during the 1800's when tuberculosis was estimated to be killing off more than a third of the human race, Mark Caldwell writes in his monumental work The Last Crusade (Macmillan), a study of the dreaded disease past and present.

"As healers (doctors and scientists), their authority stood at risk -- how could they claim respect for their art if they remained ignorant and impotent before the world's leading cause of death?

"But tuberculosis was more than a scientist's obsession or a challenge to physicians," Caldwell observes. "In the United States it became a national preoccupation and the pivot for a miniature economy. Businessmen, small and grand, built empires on it. Towns like Saranac Lake, New York, grew up around the reatment of tuberculosis, throve during the heyday of the sanatorium cure, and withered afterward."

The author describes the frenzy that prevailed. Health crusaders inundated the nation with a flood of antituberculosis propaganda, Christmas seals became a fixture of national fund raising, novelists and playwrights turned the disease into plots for imaginative literature, and charlatans converted the fright an fever into ill-gotten gains.

There never has been a scarcity of proposed remedies. Even after the disease was found to be contagious in 1865 and the microbe was identified in 1882, "snake oil" salesmen enticed buyers to their pseudo-medical concoctions, guaranteed to cure tuberculosis within the time that it required to drink a case of their undefined nostrums.

Mark Caldwell describes the beginning of a consensus among doctors and in an attempt to contain the disease:

". . . bacteriological discoveries had not yielded a foolproof weapon against tuberculosis, but they had suggested a reasonable strategy to retard its speed.

"First, since it was now known to be contagious and the mechanism of infection understood, it made sense . . . to isolate the tubercular (patient) as pleasantly as possible, from the general population. And further, it came to be thought that the tubercles, the destructive consequences of the illness, might be used to frustrate it."

Caldwell then portrays the remarkable attempt at cure that gave rise to the sanatorium and the influence that it wielded over the civilized world for many years. …

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