Unlike other diseases whose epidemics felled whole swathes of population in a short amount of time, tuberculosis was a disease that people lived with, a deadly killer in the population that gradually took over many lives. Around the turn of the 20th century in England, its reach affected many and brought about changes in society and in the individual families which were its basis.
My research to find out about my grandfather Chambers' life, led me to delve deeper into the tuberculosis experience in England at this time. His family was affected by pulmonary tuberculosis, at the time commonly called phthisis or consumption. Members of the Chambers family lived with and died from the disease, but why had they become infected and how did the disease affect their lives?
A favoured character in many Victorian novels was the dying consumptive, a noble young creature bravely waiting for death while slowly wasting away. The English novelists' use of the young consumptive as a plot device fell out of fashion about 1880, but the use of such characters had prevailed for decades and the stereotypical consumptive trope is still with us today as new readers discover these classic tales. The long suffering victim on her death bed which these novels portray is an image that has seeped into western cultural shorthand much like good guys wearing white hats and bad guys wearing black hats. Such images colour our understanding about consumption.
The reality was different.
Dormandy, Thomas. White Death: A History of Tuberculosis. New York: New York University Press, 2000
Smith, F. B. The Retreat of Tuberculosis 1850-1950. London, New York, Sydney: Croom Helm, 1988