The “Dread Disease” as an inspiration for 19th and 20th century literature

The story of tuberculosis, the “dread disease” that has killed hundreds of millions of people, has been told dramatically by writers whom it affected during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In his new book Times and Tides of Tuberculosis, Thomas M. Daniel discusses the lives and literary works of fifteen such writers, beginning with John Keats and ending with Susan Sontag.

During most of the nineteenth century, tuberculosis evoked despair; death was expected and sometimes even welcomed. John Keats, a physician as well as a poet, “longed for easeful death” after he made his own diagnosis. The Brontë sisters died of tuberculosis, and the disease features prominently in Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Alexandre Dumas, fils, and Henry Mürger wrote about young women dying of the disease; their stories inspired the operas La Traviata and La Bohème. For none of these writers was there any chance to escape the ravages of this dread disease.

With the discovery of the cause of tuberculosis and the openings of sanatoria at the end of the nineteenth century, sufferers gained some measure of hope. Thomas Mann and W. S. Maugham wrote metaphorically of sanatorium life, basing their narratives on their personal experiences. Katherine Mansfield refused to enter such a retreat from her short, disease-ridden life. Tennis champion Alice Marble, who also rejected sanatorium care, conquered not only her court opponents but also her tuberculosis.

The advent of curative drugs in the mid-twentieth century ushered in an era of cure and expectations of recovery. Tuberculosis no longer posed a threat. It touched the lives of both Plath and Sontag; and yet their writings reveal ignorance and a lack of concern.

The threat of the dread disease remains with us. As discussed in the coda to Times and Tides of Tuberculosis, AIDS and the emergence of multi-drug resistant strains of the tubercle bacillus have led to resurgence of the disease and have evoked renewed public awareness and alarm.

Thomas M. Daniel is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University, where he was also Director of the Center for International Health. Board certified in internal medicine and pulmonary disease, he has served on numerous national committees relating to tuberculosis control and has written numerous journal articles, most of them focused on tuberculosis. Now retired, he focuses on medical history and has published five books and several book chapters.

Times and Tides of Tuberculosis
Perceptions Revealed in Literature, Keats to Sontag
by Thomas Daniel, M.D.
ISBN 978-1-56474-544-6
176 pages, paperback, $16.95
Publication date: October 2013

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